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U.S., France and U.K. Strike Syria's Chemical Weapons Program; Trump Attorney Michael Cohen under Criminal Investigation; Trump versus Comey. Aired 12m-1a ET

Aired April 14, 2018 - 00:00   ET

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


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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour, our breaking news coverage of the U.S. military action in Syria continues now. This is CNN TONIGHT, I'm Don Lemon. It's a little past midnight on the East Coast here. A little past 7:00 am in Syria, where U.S. aircraft including B-1 bombers and at least one U.S. Navy warship were used in the attack on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The strikes in coordination with Britain and France, focused on the regime's chemical weapons capability. Listen to the president tonight.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, a short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States.

We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.

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LEMON: The president speaking from the White House. I want to bring in CNN's Pamela Brown. Pamela Brown is at the White House now. Ryan Browne is at the Pentagon. Nick Paton Walsh is in Northern Syria and Sam Kiley in Moscow.

Pam, to you first. It seemed there were some differences between the president, what he said, and what Secretary Mattis said.

What can you tell us about that? PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. If you listen to what they both said, it almost as if there were two different operations underway. On the one hand, you had the president from the Diplomatic Room saying that the U.S. was prepared for a sustained response in order to ensure that there were not any further chemical weapons attacks, almost leaving the door open that there could be a wave of more airstrikes.

Then you heard Secretary Mattis on the other hand, who said that this was a one-time shot.

And to understand sort of why there was a difference there, you have to go back and look at the last few days with these meetings between the president and his national security team.

We are told through sources that the president throughout the week has been pushing for a stronger, more muscular, more sustained response. But Secretary Mattis and other Pentagon officials have been holding back a little bit more, being more cautious because they wanted to prevent a direct conflict with Russia.

And the concern is that if they went overboard with the response, that that could, of course, create issues with Russia. So that is sort of what is partially behind the difference in messages there.

Now speaking of Russia, the president sent a direct message to Russia and Iran during his speech, saying that how could they be complicit, you know, in the innocent murder of civilians, calling out Russia for not stopping Syria's chemical weapons program, despite the promise there.

But also intelligence officials and administration officials are keeping a close eye on how Russia responds to the airstrikes in Syria announced this evening. That's a big concern that's been part of the calculus this week and part of the delay in actually making this decision, sort of gaming out how Russia will respond and whether the U.S. is prepared for any type of response from Russia -- Don.

LEMON: Pamela Brown at the White House. Pamela, thank you so much.

I want to bring in Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, you're following the developments on the ground in Northern Syria.

What can you tell us?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: At this point the U.S. have announced three particular targets which --

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WALSH: -- clears up a lot of the confusion around Syrian regime loyal media during that 17-minute window. Only 17-minute window from when the first explosions were heard during Donald Trump's opening remarks to when Jim Mattis declared it all over. The targets hit, one in Damascus, a research center for the

development of production of chemical weapons; another similar facility near Homs, to the north of the capital and just the south of that, a third facility considered to be a command post as well as a storage facility.

Those Homs facilities considered to be related to the production of sarin. Both in 2013 and April last year that was the red line, Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's later, which in Obama's case didn't merit military action. But in April did launch 59 Tomahawk missiles.

The question is, as the dawn is up here now and people begin to piece through exactly what was hit, what level of damage was inflicted?

Yes, of course, there's buildings that can be destroyed.

But were they empty, were there people inside?

Did the days ahead of telegraphing of the U.S. intentions provide Syria enough scope to get people out of those buildings?

Or have other things been hit too we haven't been told about at this particular stage?

There are signs on Syrian state media and from Syrian regime loyalists that they're trying to paint how they claim they shot some missiles out of the sky over Homs as something of a victory. But they've escaped to some degree unscathed.

But still I think the message has been clearly delivered that basically the U.S. don't want to get involved in Syria's lengthy civil war particularly. It just doesn't want chemical weapons use. That's when it will intervene.

Whether or not that gets registered in Moscow and Tehran backing the Syrian regime is something that infamous Damascus not to do again in the future, we'll have to wait and see. But clear though, interesting, too, that Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, not willing to specifically state they have proof sarin had been used, just that they could not rule it out.

And if in the future we see like there have been suggestions that sarin-like agents and chlorine, a household chemical that can be deadly in heavy concentrations, continually used together, is the use of chlorine enough for the U.S. to intervene again?

We're in a messy picture for what it means going forward. But certainly days of anticipation have led to 17 minutes' worth of quite intense and focused strikes with a clear message and, of course, the U.K. and France on board as well, not just the U.S. acting by itself -- Don.

LEMON: Indeed. I want to get to Ryan Browne at the Pentagon.

Ryan, we've also heard Secretary Mattis talk about those targets tonight and what the goal of the strike is. So fill us in what he said, also any information on what else France or Britain may be doing.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Don. Secretary Mattis laying out the rationale for these targets, that they're specifically tied to the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program. There was a research facility near Damascus, the capital, involving the chemical weapons program.

And there was a storage site near Homs and there was a command center near Homs. All, Secretary Mattis saying, affiliated with the Syrian regime chemical weapons program. So these strikes designed to both help degrade that program as well as deter the regime from using chemical weapons in the future.

Now there is -- we're told that U.S. B-1 bombers were involved in these strikes, firing air-launched cruise missiles. At least one U.S. Navy ship in the Red Sea participated. The French said their jets participated in these strikes and British said some of their Tornado jets launched their own missiles against targets in Syria as well.

So definitely a multilateral operation. And unlike last year in April of 2017, Secretary Mattis saying double the number of weapons were used. Last year about 59 Tomahawk missiles were fired into Syria. Secretary Mattis saying this time double the number of weapons used.

So definitely trying to up the ante if you will in its efforts to curb the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program.

LEMON: All right, Ryan, stand by.

Sam Kiley, let's bring you in. The Russian ambassador to the U.S. said in a statement responding to the military action that the U.S., the possessor of the biggest arsenal chemical weapons, has no moral right to blame other countries.

Has Russia indicated any kind of response?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not really, not yet. It's very early in the morning. And I think the Russians will want to get -- do their own battle damage assessment, as it's called, to assess the extent to which the Syrian regime has been hit and whether there's been any collateral damage to Russian facilities or indeed Iranian facilities.

But just to pick up the point there, the Russian ambassador to Washington, Mr. Antonov, in the same statement said that our warnings have been left unheard. But he also said that we warn that such actions will not be left without consequences.

And the foreign spokeswoman here --

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KILEY: -- Maria Zakharova has said similar things. Keeping I think the part warm while the Kremlin trying to figure out its reaction.

If this is the end of these counter-chemical weapon facilities strikes, as Secretary Mattis suggested in his statement at the Pentagon, then it may be a possibility the Russians might well drop it and indeed even put some pressure on the Syrians to try to get them to stop using the chemical weapons, even chlorine, which they've used dozens of times.

But if it's going to escalate and if there is another round of bombing, for example, tomorrow night, then I think we'll see stronger and stronger reactions coming from the Russians. But at the moment, threatening but mutedly so.

LEMON: OK, Sam.

Let's get back to Nick Paton Walsh.

I'm getting from Syrian state TV, Nick, reporting no deaths, they're saying three injured near Homs. You can talk about that but also respond to this as well. The president warned both Russia and Iran in the address tonight.

But the real likelihood of any change in behavior between Russia or Iran in Syria, what is it?

WALSH: No, really. In a word this is all about chemical weapons, all about after particularly the incident in Salisbury in the U.K., the international community saying that chemical weapons have no place in modern society and a coming together for the one moment.

Neither U.K. or the France or U.S., let's be honest, has any desire to tip the balance in Syria's civil war. They've been criticized relentlessly for the last six years for not being adequately involved.

This is not about them suddenly trying to change the outcome of this conflict. Remember, Rex Tillerson, former secretary of state, he had a plan suggesting that Assad should leave power, that the Russian and Iranian influence should be checked here.

Well, he's no longer in his post. We don't know what Mike Pompeo, his successor, is necessarily going to implement as his idea or John Bolton, the new NSA. But really this is not about influence in the lengthy civil war. You may possibly see that Russia and Iran, who are kind of getting their way here, Moscow with its own base now for aircraft on the Mediterranean, and Iran, who must be pretty content -- what they seem to have is a highway between Tehran through Iraq, Syria, to Lebanon, one of its allies just to the north of Israel, its arch nemesis in the region.

They are both getting what they want in terms of the territory they have control over here to some degree, despite the brutal, savage treatment of Syrian rebels by Russia and the Syrian regime that it backs.

So they probably aren't going to see Washington's move today as trying to upset the balance tactically within the broader conflict. You just heard there from Sam, it just may be that Russia, back in 2013, said to the Syrian regime, please, just let's get onboard with the U.N. resolution to get rid of your chemical weapons. Whether that was honest or not because it doesn't have the full effect

of removing all their chemical weapons stockpiles, sees an opportunity to perhaps pressure Damascus again, saying let's not have another standoff over the use of chemical weapons.

Frankly, what happened in Douma, even if you look at it with no sense of moral value at all, it tactically didn't really yield that much of a success because, while they managed to kill many civilians, over 40, and affect over 500 or so and push people out of a small pocket of an area they were likely to be winning there anyway soon.

So people may look at this as perhaps some element of lucky avoidance by Russia and Iran for their more tactical goals here -- Don.

Nick, Pamela, Ryan, Sam, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

When we come back much more on the breaking news. Airstrikes on Syria by the United States, along with Britain and France.

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LEMON: Here our breaking news at this hour on CNN. President Trump announcing airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical weapons program. I want to bring in CNN military analysts, Major General James "Spider" Marks, Lt. Col. Rick Francona and Col. Cedric Leighton.

Colonel Francona, you have new information about the targets hit.

What do you know?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Don, I've been monitoring Syrian Arabic language media. And there was a press release put out by the Syrian military on the target set.

And if it's to be believed -- so we always say that about the Syrian press -- but if you look at these 10 targets that were struck, virtually all of them have to do with chemical weapons, either the research and development, their production, their storage or the employment or the command and control thereof.

And the two air bases that were involved in the recent attacks. So you know, the intelligence looked to be very good. And they have focused on the chemical weapons capability, just as they said they were going to do. So it's a pretty impressive list.

Now we don't know the extent of damage to these facilities. But if they were able to hit this target set, it would put a real dent in Syria's chemical weapons capability, which is the focus of tonight's mission.

LEMON: General Marks, show us what alliance assets are in the area.

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Sure will, Don. First of all, by orientation, obviously we know what Syria looks like, capital of Damascus; Homs, one of the critical areas for chemical weapons storage capabilities.

This is what type assets are routinely in the area and what assets are now steaming and moving and are available in the area. As we know, this strike may not be over. It may be a sustained effort but might also be an effort that took place this evening and then, through assessment, this might be the end of it.

But what we see clearly is you have French and American assets here in Jordan. Those are the closest to Syria and might have been involved in the preponderance of the strikes. Don't know for sure, only because of the proximity to Syria.

Obviously you have British and U.S. forces both in Cyprus and Turkey. What's unique about the forces in Turkey is because of the very tenuous relationship that the United States now has with Turkey -- Turkey, remember, is a NATO ally but they have been saddling (sic) up next to Russia for some time and have even purchased S-400 air defense systems from Russia that are now available to Turkey, a very unique circumstance.

We always have a naval presence in the Mediterranean and as a matter of routine we have surface vessels and subsurface vessels that might be transiting the Red Sea. The preponderance of the bulk of the capability in the Middle East is here, both --

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MARKS: -- in Qatar and in the United Arab Emirates. Those capabilities have been there for many, many years. They are a routine part of the landscape. These are the capabilities that were used predominately for these strikes. And I think there probably was some prepositioning, some plus-ups of capabilities in advance of the strike options.

LEMON: Colonel, the Syrian state TV is saying no deaths, three injured near Homs.

Do you think that is likely to go up?

Do you think that's accurate?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I would be a bit surprised if it's accurate. But in a way, that's a good thing because then it would make it very difficult for the Syrians to actually trot out a bunch of bodies that were not part of any damage that actually happened.

And one of the things that I'm afraid of is that, as part of an information operations campaign, they would actually trot out some things -- some damage that actually did not occur. That would include damage to buildings, bodies, things like that. That would be a classic thing.

But now they've basically said if there are only three wounded, then the strikes have basically done what they wanted to do in the sense of collateral damage. And in that sense, it's a good -- good for our side as well.

LEMON: Let me ask you another question. Syria has been in the middle of a civil war for years. This is the second strike President Trump has ordered there, one in April of last year as well.

Would you anticipate any sort of longer term commitment here?

LEIGHTON: I think we have to be careful of all these longer term commitments. What could happen here is a definite move toward that because we may discover through the battle damage assessment that will take place that we didn't strike everything that we wanted to strike.

That could then result in a second strike or a series of strikes, which could then have the effect of escalating the conflict as it currently exists.

LEMON: Yes.

Colonel Francona, when the president talks about not wanting to be in Syria for an indefinite period of time, saying he hopes everyone is out in six months, what message does that send to Syria, Russia and Iran?

FRANCONA: I think your point is well taken. Syria and -- Russia and Iran are watching this and so are the Turks. The Turks have a vested interest in the United States' leaving the area because they want to dominate that entire stretch along their southern border, where the Kurds are. They want to make sure that the Kurds represent no threat to Turkey.

The Russians and the Iranians want to be the power brokers in Syria. And as long we're there, they have to contend with U.S. military presence there. So if they can get us to leave by any means, be it political, diplomatic or just making life untenable for us there, that just gives them free rein in the area.

And the Russians have a much longer term goal here than maybe the Iranians do. The Russians are looking to reassert themselves into the Middle East. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians were pretty much kicked out of the area. We were very successful in that.

And it was not until just a few years ago that we saw the Russians coming back. It was the Morsi -- when Morsi was overthrown in Egypt when they first made their inroads in Egypt. But they really made successful inroads in Syria with those two air bases, 49-year leases on those two bases, one airbase, one naval base and they're using them extensively.

So the Russians have a vested interest in the United States getting out of the way and letting them be the preeminent military power in the region.

LEMON: General Marks, does this hamstring our efforts to say that we are not exactly in it for the long haul?

MARKS: You know, I think the way we need to approach this, obviously, to your question, Don, is from the strategic perspective. We are in it for the long haul but we have options in terms of how we want to be in it.

One of the things I think this presents to us is an option. Russia has a presence that's been in Syria for quite some time. They almost predate our presence in this part of the world.

But this is an opportunity, if our president wants to try to cooperate in some way with Russia, we can narrowly define what the elements of cooperation look like. And we can go about the business of trying to get Syria, in some way, out of this entangled mess that they have created for themselves.

The United States and Russia clearly have different views in terms of where we are right now. But it's an opportunity for both nations to move forward together if we can define it very narrowly and have very discernible steps. And we can build trust between us. Otherwise, we continue to have messes like this and there'll be more of them.

LEMON: Stay with me, gentlemen. When with he come back, much more on the breaking news, the airstrikes tonight on Syria's chemical weapons program.

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LEMON: Here is our breaking news tonight. President Trump announcing precision strikes tonight on Syria's chemical weapons capabilities. Back with me now Major General James "Spider" Marks, Lt. Col. Rick Francona and Colonel Cedric Leighton.

So Col. Francona, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that they specifically identified targets to mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved.

How difficult would it have been for our military to avoid hitting any Russian or Iranian personnel?

FRANCONA: Well, it would be very difficult. The Russians have insinuated themselves into virtually every military installation in Syria. They are truly very closely allied and aligned with the Syrians right now. You find advisers down all the way to the battalion level in most units.

But I know that General Dunford said that we didn't provide any other information over that deconfliction line than we normally do every day. But the Russians had to know this was coming and I'm sure that they moved their personnel around to make sure they weren't in harm's way.

And if you look at the target set, the target set was mostly in the Damascus area. There were only a few targets in the Homs area. So most of the Russians, the senior Russians and the bulk of their forces, are in the northern part of the country --

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FRANCONA: -- and also their air defenses are in the bulk of the northern part of the country. So we avoided a lot of the Russian air defense as well. So I think it was probably planned that way. Hit the targets that you know aren't going to be that defended; hit the targets where you think the Russians won't be.

LEMON: I'm getting -- Colonel Leighton, CNN's Jim Sciutto just getting this. It's from a White House official.

"Sustained response Trump described could include further military action as well as diplomatic and economic steps."

He says that while tonight's attack is over, military options remain on the table, including in response to another use of chemical weapons. Tell us what that means.

LEIGHTON: So what that basically means, Don, is that we are looking at a possible escalation of this. So we have this type of strike that we just experienced tonight. What could happen is they may set a series of other targets and go after those.

Clearly if there is use of chemical weapons, I think it makes sense for the president to reserve the right to go back and to restrike some targets and to strike new targets. That would be a pretty normal thing to do in a situation like this.

But I think the hope here is that this will not require that degree of escalation. I think it remains to be seen, if there are some other indications that these strikes were not effective or if there are indications the Syrians are going to either move chemical weapons and their precursor agents somewhere else, or if they're going to use those weapons, then we could see more strikes coming. And that report from Jim Sciutto will probably bear itself out.

LEMON: General Marks, the U.S. is going after the facilities where they process and store chemical weapons.

What type of personnel would be onsite?

Would you expect there to be many casualties?

Would there be people in these facilities?

MARKS: Probably not this time of day. That's why the strikes routinely come at night. Not only does that have the element of surprise, it's generally a down cycle, which is obvious. But you'll have very, very few people in those facilities.

Of course there will be folks that will be in those facilities. But that's why you choose them -- choose to strike at that time.

The types of capability -- or at least the individuals with certain capabilities that are there, these are going to be very highly trained, very scientific, very sharp guys. The folks that are running these research and development facilities have an ongoing mission. They're highly trained, they're highly educated. These are the scientific types that are putting together everything that needs to be in place to ensure that the capability does not atrophy. New capabilities can be developed.

So highly trained, probably very minimal in number during this period of the strikes. But this is where, if they come back to those facilities tomorrow morning, they're going to find that there is not much there -- at least it's morning right now. And they're going to drive up to the worksite and go, OK, I guess I'm not going to work today.

This was not shock and awe. This was not an attempt to just completely debilitate the regime. This was an attack against regime targets, very minimal in number but very, very significant in terms of their attribution to a chemical capability. That the United States, France and U.K. and the rest of the United Nations, let's be frank, have said, Assad, you have got to cut this stuff out.

LEMON: Thanks to one and all. We've got much more tonight on our breaking news, the airstrikes in Syria. Plus today's bombshell revelation that the long-time personal attorney of the President of the United States under criminal investigation.

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LEMON: In the midst of our breaking news on the airstrikes in Syria, we also have the bombshell revelation about President Trump's personal attorney. The Justice Department saying Michael Cohen is under criminal investigation, an investigation that has been going on for months.

Let's discuss now. CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, national security analyst Samantha Vinograd and Juliette Kayyem and CNN political commentator David Swerdlick -- Juliette.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Kaylee?

LEMON: I don't know where that came from.

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DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: 2016, you're back.

LEMON: Oh wait. Whoa. I'm just kidding.

KAYYEM: You're having a flashback.

LEMON: My gosh, that's right.

KAYYEM: I colored my hair. I colored my hair, OK.

LEMON: So the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen under criminal investigation, as I said it's been going on for months.

Do we know what he is being investigated for?

KAYYEM: Not exactly. We know that it's a big deal because of the authority that the prosecutors received from a court to essentially take everything that Cohen has got. We do know also that it's related to his business dealings at least in the court proceedings that came out today and not necessarily related to his legal work.

Why is that significant?

Because Michael Cohen is an entity of Donald Trump. As a businessman, as a lawyer and his dealings have always, in the last couple of years of his professional life, have been tied to Donald Trump.

And so I think one of the biggest takeaways and probably why Donald Trump is so nervous at this stage is the questions or the prosecutors saying they wanted more information about Michael Cohen's dealings with Corey Lewandowski and Hope Hicks, two key players in the Trump campaign.

And obviously Hope Hicks a key player in the White House. That seems to be direct ties to Trump and is something that you know, for Trump, himself -- is not something he can stop by threatening to fire Sessions or Mueller or Rosenstein at this stage.

LEMON: I thought it interesting, David, as I was watching "THE SITUATION ROOM" earlier with Wolf Blitzer and Raj Shaw was standing on the lawn of the White House and he wouldn't answer Wolf's questions regarding Michael Cohen. He said he wanted to talk to the issues that were important to the American people.

Now he gladly answered the question about Scooter Libby but then wouldn't answer the question about Michael Cohen. And my response to him would have been --

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LEMON: -- so you don't think the president's personal attorney being under criminal investigation is a story that's important to the American people, especially when his only client is you know who -- David.

SWERDLICK: Yes, Don, I think that's right. I haven't -- I didn't see that interview. But I think there is two sides to that. On the one hand you are absolutely right. This is an issue of

critical importance to the American people. The President of the United States, at least in theory, should be the moral leader of the country. He is the head of state.

The idea that one of his henchman, Michael Cohen, is now under criminal investigation -- and I believe the warrant that was served this week referenced wire fraud, bank fraud, possible campaign finance violation; no indictment yet.

So he, of course, has the presumption of innocence. That is serious business. And remember, none of this would have come up -- we wouldn't be talking about this -- we wouldn't know who Michael Cohen was if President Trump had just stayed a private citizen, if he had not run for president or if he had not won.

But now that he is president, all this is a matter of national concern. On the other hand, Don, here is what I think Republicans are holding onto. If you look at the polls, Real Clear Politics polling average, the president is at 42 percent. He was at 44 percent on inauguration day.

So the bottom hasn't fallen out. He still has over 80 percent support among Republicans and that allows the White House to keep repeating these talking points about all these things that they've done.

LEMON: You hear what I said, though, his only client?

SWERDLICK: Yes.

LEMON: Is the President of the United States and he is under criminal investigation. It's not like he could be under for any other client.

And what are his other business dealings?

SWERDLICK: No, right, no, look, Don, President Trump is like, you know -- it's like going to the club with one of your buddies and he gets in a fight and you know your buddy is wrong but you've got to jump in on the fight on his side even though you -- this is Michael Cohen now.

Donald Trump's gotten him into this bar fight. And now his whole life is getting turned upside down because he is loyal to his friend. Even though he knows his friend is way out there on the plank.

It's a rich political version of no snitching.

So Sam, when David said the bottom hasn't fallen out, you were shaking your head no.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's just kind of unbelievable to me, Don, just reality check, here, right. The president is really talented at hiring a lot of people that end up under criminal investigation.

And it's worth noting that President Trump, I believe, had a lawyer at Michael Cohen's hearing today. So this wasn't just some random event that happened that the president is disassociated from.

But I just have to wonder for the president's base or, for example, for Republican senators or members of Congress more generally, at what point do all of these criminal investigations start to lead people to wonder, what's going on here?

How many criminal investigations does it take before they wake up and they say, something is wrong here?

This guy is shady.

LEMON: I don't think it's ever going to happen.

VINOGRAD: I don't know. Maybe I'm too optimistic. I just wish that it would.

LEMON: I don't think it's ever going to happen, whatever shady is or not. That's not for me to determine. But I don't think it -- because I think that -- I think the -- their messaging is effective. They have conservative media, they have the Trump channel all saying the same thing.

Do you agree with me, Douglas?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN POLITICAL HISTORIAN: I do. And as long as the economy does well, people will forgive Donald Trump an awful lot. But this event with Michael Cohen is just blockbuster, killer negative for Donald Trump.

I mean, the odds are of being the fixer for Donald Trump over the past decade and doing -- dealing with all these kinds of payoffs and nefarious activities and behaviors, the fact is one very well might surface in your having a President of the United States with a felony charge.

To me, what's happening to Michael Cohen is even more dangerous for the president than a basic Mueller report on the collusion. Because here you are looking at criminal activity. And it's been booted to New York away from Washington --

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LEMON: Hold that thought because this is what "The New York Times" is reporting.

It said, "Deep concern inside the White House over the newly revealed criminal investigation and that President Trump's advisers have concluded that the Cohen investigation poses a great and more imminent threat to the president than the special counsel's investigation."

Go on.

BRINKLEY: That's kind of what I was just saying. I think -- I think for Donald Trump, this is going to be a very bleak weekend. Now Syria has been like -- I know people are saying wag the dog. But it's going to have a lot of popular support. We didn't have a lot of casualties. None so far reported.

LEMON: Can you talk to me about that?

Because the Syrian television is saying no one died. There are three injured. When this first happened all I heard from everyone, if you read social media, is wag-the-dog, wag-the-dog. Listen, I can't determine that. Maybe it's wag the puppy because you've got France and Britain on.

But do you -- what do you think of that assessment?

BRINKLEY: Yes, I think that Trump had --

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BRINKLEY: -- to do something, though, because of the red line. And once that chemical weapons event happened a week ago, he was going to do something.

LEMON: So you wouldn't say it's wag-the-dog.

BRINKLEY: I don't think fully. But the Comey revelations of today, Comey is going to be everywhere next week, including here on CNN. And it's going to get Donald Trump going. You're going to get his tweeting again, making crazy statements again. And the little bump -- bounce he's getting out of Syria tonight will fade quickly.

LEMON: All right. Stick around everyone. When we come back, the political war between James Comey and the president heating up. Why the president went on a Twitter tirade about the former FBI director.

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LEMON: James Comey's new book full of explosive revelations and it's got President Trump rage tweeting at the former FBI director.

Back with me now, Douglas Brinkley, Samantha Vinograd and Juliette Kayyem, also David Swerdlick.

Douglas, the slow leak of --

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LEMON: -- this Comey book is starting to attract last night -- it attracted swift and angry -- starting to bubble last night. It attracted a swift and angry response from the president from "slime ball" to "weak" to "liar" and "leaker." And then this afternoon, this from the White House briefing.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: One of the president's greatest achievements will go down as firing director James Comey.

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LEMON: Let's remember that this Mueller investigation began when the president fired James Comey.

What's your thoughts?

BRINKLEY: That the president just despises Comey. And now that we're able to read the excerpts of the Comey book, you can see why. Comey pulls no punches. He calls Donald Trump every name in the book. He compares him to the Gambino crime family. Calls him a mobster, a constant liar.

And but I was surprised, Don, that Comey is so loosey goosey with his own language. At one point he uses the phrase "holy crap" and the whole golden showers scenario and all. I thought he would have taken a higher road. And instead, he seems to have gone into the muck with Donald Trump.

So next week it will be back and forth Comey, Trump, on the TV shows.

LEMON: I didn't think he needed to do that.

BRINKLEY: No, he should have taken -- been -- the great public servants write memoirs that don't behave that way --

LEMON: Does anyone disagree with that?

Because he's held in such high esteem. Listen, people were upset with him what happened with the 2016 election. But I think -- Democrats were calling for him to resign, not necessarily be fired. And then they got back on board.

Go ahead, what did you want to say, David?

SWERDLICK: Don, I was just going to -- not interrupt. I slightly disagree. Douglas, of course, has the historical perspective that few people do. What was learned in 2016 in terms of people who were at odds with Donald Trump, then candidate and now president, is that the Michelle Obama frame, when they go low we go high, frequently didn't work.

And I wonder if Comey is going with when they go low, I go lower type approach. Because when you're doing battle with Trump, there's no bottom to which he won't go when it comes to insults. I think Comey has had enough time to reflect on that and sees that really he's in this image dogfight with the president, at least he will be for the next several days.

And maybe he says, look, it's going to get nasty. Why not just let it rip from the beginning?

LEMON: Since we're talking about that, Comey does write some tongue and cheek about the president's physical characteristics.

This is for you, Juliette. His hair, his skin, his hand size. Here's what he said about why it was so salacious. Watch this.

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JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I started to tell him about the allegation was that he had been involved with prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow in 2013 during a visit for the Miss Universe pageant and that the Russians had filmed the episode.

And he interrupted very defensively and started talking about it. You know, "Do I look like a guy who needs hookers?"

And I assumed he was asking that rhetorically. I didn't answer that. And then I just moved on and explained, sir, I'm not saying that we credit this. I'm not saying we believe it. We just thought it very important that you know.

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LEMON: Do you feel the tawdry details potentially detracted from the more serious allegations he made?

KAYYEM: No. I don't. And I don't know what choice Comey had. It's the reality of what the dossier was about. In other words, the question is, as I have been saying, is not so much did it happen or did it not happen.

The question is whether the dossier or information in the dossier could have been used to compromise the president during the 2016 election or compromise him now in terms of his allegiance as president.

I will say, I wish that Donald Trump's anger, we could see this anger directed towards Putin and those responsible for what happened during the 2016 campaign. To Sarah Sanders' point, what will make a great president is not firing Comey. It would have been a president who has spent the last 18-19 months actually addressing what is of fundamental and structural concern for our democracy.

So the -- Trump's protests now are not only sort of irrelevant to Mueller's investigation, they do ring really odd when you compare them to his lack of interest in America's national and homeland security.

LEMON: Sam, excerpts from James Comey's forthcoming book leaked yesterday. And Trump and his allies have spent today really punching back in attempt to discredit the former FBI director. This is Sarah Sanders earlier today.

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SANDERS: The American people see right through the blatant lies of a self- admitted leaker. There is nothing more than a poorly --

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SANDERS: -- executed P.R. stunt by Comey to desperately rehabilitate his tattered reputation and enrich his own bank account by peddling a book that belongs in the bargain bin of the fiction section.

Instead of being remembered as a dedicated servant in the pursuit of justice, like so many of his other colleagues at the FBI, Comey will be forever known as a disgraced partisan hack that broke his sacred trust with the president of the United States, the dedicated agents of the FBI, and the American people he vowed to faithfully serve.

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LEMON: She wanted to get that out. That was scripted. She read every single word.

Who do you think the American people think is more credible?

Trump or Comey, Sam?

VINOGRAD: I think definitely Comey. But Don, here's the thing, a lot of people write a lot of books about presidents. You could fill a library with them. Most of the time presidents don't respond, particularly when those books are untrue.

But this president has spent a lot of time both personally and through Sarah Sanders responding to things that he says, again, are untrue and that makes me wonder a little bit.

To your earlier question, I think the timing of this book is a little bit unfortunate. I think that we are now seeing a scene play out that was expected. The president's base are using this book to kind of bully Jim Comey. And it's a distraction at a time when we have an investigation underway and 2018 midterms coming.

So a lot of people are saying we need shed light on the president prioritizing, for example, his own personal interests over the Russia investigation. We knew that. I personally would have just liked to see this book published once we got through the midterms and once the investigation was done.

LEMON: What do you think of that, David?

Should he have waited at least for the investigation to end?

SWERDLICK: Well, I agree it's giving new fodder to Trump's base to say the FBI is out to get the president, the deep state, that there's a sort of conspiracy of the Washington establishment. So in that sense, I think Sam is right.

I wouldn't second guess the timing of the book, though. The book probably is just when it was ready to come out it was going to come out. Comey is known, even though people have always said that he is someone of high integrity and intelligence, someone who was a dedicated public servant, his reputation is also as someone who likes the spotlight. And this is a moment when he's sort of grabbing a little bit of the spotlight.

LEMON: Who knows when the investigation will be over? Remember the Benghazi investigation was over two years, so it hasn't actually been that long. All right. Thank you all.

When we come back the latest on our breaking news. Airstrikes on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.