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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Syria Options; Hillary Clinton on Syria; Interview With U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken; Another Option in Syria?; Hillary Clinton Speaks Out on Syria

Aired September 09, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE LEAD": Option one, strike. Option two, back away.

But did the Obama administration unwittingly find a third way out of the Syrian mess?

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is "THE LEAD."

The national lead, off the cuff, America's top diplomat throws out a hypothetical deal for Syria to give up its weapons and the regime runs with it.

So why is one U.S. official calling it a major goof for the administration?

The politics lead, seven months ago she would have been the one making the administration's case to strike Syria. Does she support it now? Hillary Clinton, breaking her silence on the conflict.

And the sports lead. If all else fails in Syria, maybe this could be plan Z. Send in Dennis Rodman. America's most unofficial envoy is back from a visit to North Korea with some ideas that sound just so crazy they -- well, let's just stop at just so crazy.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the national lead. Just minutes from now, President Obama will sit down for a one-on-one with CNN as he gets ready to appeal straight to the American people to strike Syria. An hour from now, top members of the Obama administration will brief members of the House just back today from summer recess.

So far, the public appears largely unmoved. Take a look at these new CNN poll numbers that we're releasing just this minute on THE LEAD; 63 percent of the American people disapprove of how the president has handled Syria. Only 31 percent approve. That's more than 2-1. I want to show you two more poll numbers. CNN released these earlier today. An overwhelming majority, 82 percent, are either certain or believe it's likely that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people.

But when asked whether Congress should authorize a U.S. strike on Syria, 59 percent said no, compared to 39 percent who said yes. These numbers do not reflect perhaps the most striking development on Syria so far today, when Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to get off- message and into the weeds over this question about the Assad regime.


QUESTION: Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously.


TAPPER: One U.S. official called Secretary Kerry's comments a -- quote -- "major goof," and said that he -- quote -- "clearly went off- script."

So how did Syria and its ally Russia respond to this hypothetical never going to happen idea that Secretary Kerry introduced? Russia says, good plan. Russia's foreign minister floated a proposal to do just what Kerry said, put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. Syria said it is open to that.


WALID MOALLEM, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I declare that the Syrian Arab republic welcomes Russia's initiative on the basis that the Syrian leadership cares about the lives of our citizens and the security in our country.


TAPPER: The White House appears very skeptical that this could happen, but they're not exactly closing the door either.

I want to bring in the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.

Tony, thanks for being here.

You said the White House has not had a chance to look at the proposal yet from Russia, but that you would welcome Assad giving up his chemical weapons in a verifiable way. So, I just want to be clear here. If the Syrian regime is serious about this and would hand over the chemical weapons supply to international control, the U.S. would stand down from a strike?

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Jake, we just saw the Russian proposal and, of course, we are going to look at it carefully, and we will talk to the Russians about it.

Of course, at the end of the day, anything that involves Syria giving up in a verifiable manner its chemical weapons and having them destroyed would be a very good thing. That's the purpose of what we're trying to do. We're trying to make sure that Syria can't use these weapons again.

But just a couple of things. We know that over the past couple of decades, the international community has tried without success to get Syria to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, something that virtually every other country on earth has signed on to. As recently as last week, Assad wouldn't even confirm that he had chemical weapons, never mind them used them against his own people.

And of course we have worked with Russia -- we have tried to work with Russia in recent months at the United Nations. And until now, every initiative we have tried, including on chemical weapons, has been blocked by the Russians. And it is a daunting task potentially to get ahold of all of these weapons in a verifiable manner, and you would probably need a cease-fire.

All of that said, we are going to look into this very carefully but let's keep one thing in mind. The only reason this is even being discussed is because of the pressure we're exerting and the threat of the use of force. And so if Congress were to give us the authority to go forward, that would actually enhance any options that may exist for some kind of resolution, but, absent that authority, it's going to make it tougher.

TAPPER: Tony, I have to be honest, it seems to me that what happened today with Secretary Kerry is he engaged in a hypothetical, forgetting that as secretary of state he's not supposed to engage in hypotheticals, and this was something of a gaffe, and the administration seems to be scrambling to take it seriously, perhaps pursuing what might be at least some sort of path of diplomacy, but it seems kind of like a mess-up.

BLINKEN: No, Jake, not at all.

Again, we will look and see what the Russians have in mind. We will talk to them about it, and, again, it's interesting because I think the only reason they put it on the table and the only reason the Syrians may have paid some lip service to it is precisely because we're threatening to use force. And it's very important now that Congress give us that authority. Otherwise, we wouldn't even be talking about this.

TAPPER: So, Tony, you saw the poll numbers that CNN released today, widespread disapproval of the president's handling of the situation, opposition to strikes against Syria, although the American people seem largely convinced that Assad did use chemical weapons against its own people.

Tony, the American people don't want you to do this.

BLINKEN: So here's what's going on.

You know, when the American people hear and they read in a headline or they hear in a brief news flash the possibility of using military force in Syria to deal with the chemical weapons problem, what they're thinking about, the frame they process it through is the last decade, a war with Iraq, a war with Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of American troops involved.

What we need to do and what we have been doing with members of Congress and what the president I'm sure will do tomorrow night is make it clear what this is and what this isn't. What this is, is a limited targeted, but we believe effective action to deal with the chemical weapons problem.

What it is not, it's not open-ended, it's not boots on the ground, it's not Afghanistan, it's not Iraq. It's nothing like that. It is not taking the country to war. As the American people understand that and understand how important it is for us to stand up -- to enforce the prohibition against using chemical weapons, I think they will get behind it.

TAPPER: But the American people I think understand that that's what you're saying, but they have been through enough military involvements that were supposed to start off small, but ended up not being small. They're being skeptical based on historical awareness.

BLINKEN: I'm not sure that they have had a chance to really understand that. Again, most of this has been in a quick headline or news flash.

The president will speak to the American people tomorrow night and he will have a chance to lay out before them exactly what we're talking about and what we're not talking about. At the same time, members of Congress have been spread all across the country during summer recess. They're coming back just now. They're getting to look at the intelligence. They're getting to see the case.

It's compelling. It's overwhelming. And then they basically have to make a decision. They have to decide whether we're going to do something or not about Assad gassing his own people, including hundreds of children.

TAPPER: I want to play something that Assad said in an interview with CBS' Charlie Rose.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: How can you talk about what happened if you don't have evidence? We're not like the American administration. We're not social media administration or government. We're the government that deals with reality. When we have evidence (INAUDIBLE)


TAPPER: I don't like agreeing with Assad, but he's right. The American people have seen no evidence tying the chemical weapons attack directly to Assad.

And, Tony, certainly, you understand, for many of us, it's not enough for the U.S. government to say, trust us, the intelligence tells us what we're saying it does, please, just believe us. I mean, you get that. BLINKEN: Jake, two things.

First, the president will have an opportunity tomorrow night to lay out the case that we're making. And we have been doing that in a classified setting with members of Congress who were back in town last week. And when they read it, when they see it, when they're able to ask questions on it, they come away convinced.

I think there's very little doubt when you talk to members of Congress who have gotten the intelligence briefings. And here's the deal. They're the elected representatives of the American people. They're the ones who get this information and then have to make a judgment representing their constituents.

TAPPER: But, Tony, you're saying that President Obama tomorrow night, when he addresses the nation, he will provide some more information about why it is that in all these classified briefings, people say that this was Assad acting or his regime acting, and we are going to get more information on that subject?

BLINKEN: I think he will be able to lay out in a very compelling way exactly what we know, and he will be able to give you some idea of how we know it, without, obviously, getting into the classified details, which we can't do because you have the question of putting in jeopardy sources and methods and making it harder to do this going forward.

But, Jake, what we do know and what we have already put out and what the president will be able to talk about tomorrow night is we know that there was an attack on August 21 using chemical weapons. And we now have evidence that sarin was used. We know where the rockets were launched from, an area controlled by the government. We know where they landed, an area controlled by the opposition that Assad was trying to clear out for weeks on end.

We have an extraordinary volume of media, social media reports, the videos that many Americans are seeing for the first time in the last day or so on their television screens. We have eyewitness accounts. We have doctors, NGOs, hospital workers. It is a compelling, overwhelming case. It's beyond a reasonable doubt.

TAPPER: All right, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, thank you, as always, for your time and your views.

BLINKEN: Thank you.

TAPPER: President Obama addresses the nation tomorrow night. Our Wolf Blitzer is about to go one-on-one with the president on the crisis in Syria. That interview airs at 6:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Coming up on THE LEAD: She's kept quiet on Syria, until now.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighs in on the president's proposal.

Plus, two months after he was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman is in police custody again. What did he do this time?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Now for politics. At first, it sounded kind of like a, sure, when pigs fly hypothetical, but now it's starting to sound like a new line in Syria. For the first time today, we're hearing from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her own words about the crisis and what could be a new plan B.

Chief domestic affairs correspondent Jessica Yellin has the story.


JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After much speculation, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke up in support of President Obama's Syria policy.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States.

YELLIN: But she managed to avoid a full-throated endorsement of a military strike.

CLINTON: This discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria's stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States.

YELLIN: As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton didn't mince words about U.S. policy towards Syria.

CLINTON: The regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end. Horrible event that chemical weapons were used, and everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime that's a red line for the world. We have made our views very clear. We are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.

YELLIN (voice-over): Privately, Clinton pushed to arm the rebels but the president did not sign on until after she left government. Now, the White House needs her help. With 55 percent of the American public opposed to striking Syria even with congressional approval, the administration wants Clinton to lend her credibility to their plan. The president is putting Clinton in a tricky and all too familiar position.

Flashback to 2008.

BARACK OBAMA, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was opposed to Iraq from the start.

YELLIN: In a Democratic presidential primary, then-candidate Obama beat up Senator Clinton over her vote to use force in the Iraq war.

CLINTON: So, I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately, the person who actually got to execute the policy did not.

OBAMA: We don't just need somebody who's ready on day one. We need somebody who is right on day one.

YELLIN: It helped, establishing Obama as the outsider candidate of change. Clinton's campaign hit back.

AD NARRATOR: It's 3:00 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.

YELLIN: It was too late to help Clinton, but in some quarters, that impression stuck.

Last week as the president publicly worked through his position on Syria, former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie tweeted, "Clear now when the 3:00 a.m. call came, Barack Obama couldn't find his glasses, knocked phone off nightstand, still reaching around for receiver."

It's a reminder that nothing in politics stays in the past, a lesson Hillary Clinton knows well.


YELLIN: And, Jake, you know, this is an especially awkward position for secretary -- former Secretary Clinton because she's being pushed to take a stand on Syria at a time when she really has no control over how the policy will be executed. As a private citizen, she isn't required to take a position and it could have real ramifications if she decides to run in 2016. In other words, the president could once again be in a way, hurting her chances at the Oval Office.

TAPPER: Jessica, of course, we also know that she behind closed doors was advocating for arming the rebels, at least a year ago. She seemed to give gravity today to this possible third way in Syria. How are her comments today being interpreted?

YELLIN: Well, they are being seen as an endorsement of that option, and as you say, another shot in the arm for that approach, but at the same time, I can't tell you that anybody who is a serious foreign policy hand really thinks that that option will work. Everybody believes you have to acknowledge that we should -- that the nation should give the non-military option a chance, so everybody is considering that, all the serious people are considering that, but nobody really thinks that it will come to pass.

TAPPER: All right. Jessica Yellin, thank you so much.

As a, quote-unquote, "private citizen", Hillary Clinton didn't have to weigh in publicly on this conflict, but she did, two weeks after we first learned of the alleged chemical weapon attack.

Political analyst and former press secretary to the Clinton administration, Dee Dee Myers, joins me now.

Why today, and why wait two weeks to speak out? DEE DEE MYERS, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, today because she was at a public event and it was --

TAPPER: And she was previously scheduled to be at.

MYERS: That she was previously scheduled to be at, and she has another one tomorrow or the next day. So, it was clear that she was going to have to say something. She can't walk into the White House in the middle of this conversation as a former secretary of state and not say anything. It would have been odd. So that's why now.

And I think, look, I think she did give credibility to two things. One, she said that the -- you know, if you can get the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons, right, that's a good option. That's the objective of all this anyway.

And the second thing she said was this wouldn't have happened without a credible threat of a strike. Obviously, Assad is listening to what's being discussed here. He's taking seriously the threat that he may see some missiles coming his way soon, and he would like to stop that.

TAPPER: How do you think the presidential messaging has been on this? I've heard from Democrats and Republicans distressed, people who want to support President Obama on this action in Syria but who have been very wary about how the president has handled it. First, of course, you had the red line, whether or not it was an accidental statement or not a year ago, then you had President Obama suddenly deciding, we looked like we were about to attack, he suddenly decided he wanted Congress involved.

Can you understand why some members of Congress want to support him on this but aren't there yet because of the public messaging?

MYERS: Well, I think, you know, they definitely had some rough spots in the previous days, particularly around the president's decision to take this to Congress. I think since then, they have increasingly got, you know, brought their forces together, gotten focused, you know, built a campaign which we're seeing today. The president will be talking to six news anchors. Tomorrow, he will be addressing the nation.

We have seen a full court press up on Capitol Hill, private meetings with lawmakers which I think have been effective. And I think the White House feels the private meetings have been effective and they have been able to get into more detailed intelligence, talked to them about what the objectives are here.

Now, the public messaging is starting to catch up with that. I think that's important, and that's good. But it's been tough. It's a tough case to make.

TAPPER: But the American people believe that Assad was responsible and still don't want the U.S. to get involved. What can he tell Wolf Blitzer and what can he say in tomorrow night's speech that will change minds? MYERS: I think he just has to keep making the case. And, look, the public may not be 100 percent behind this if the president decides to do it. That's what leadership takes. Sometimes, you've got to take the action and bring the public along and convince them in the process that it was worth doing, that it was important, that the results, you know, speak for themselves.

That's what he's going to have to do in this case. He's not going to get from 39 percent to a majority in the next few days. That's not going to happen.

But I think he needs to show the public that he's thinking about this, that he has a strong reason for doing it and assure them that he's on it, and to bring congress along, doing it -- you know, we don't know what's going to happen. There's still a huge variety of outcomes that are possible in the coming days and weeks. But I think the president's got to lead.

TAPPER: What does this remind you of from the Clinton years, if anything? Obviously, there were a number of military interventions there, plus ones that -- where President Clinton did not get involved such as Rwanda that he later expressed regret for?

MYERS: Right. And they're all different, right? It's really hard. It's always -- you're always comparing apples to oranges in these situations. But I think the president learned over time that American force --

TAPPER: President Clinton.

MYERS: President Clinton, I'm sorry. America's force and America's voice could be used together to great effect and that we didn't use it, that sometimes was when he had regret. He has said not intervening in the genocide in Rwanda is perhaps his greatest regret as president.

He went on to intervene in Kosovo, to very good effect. And that wasn't something that was going to be hugely popular with the American public, either, but I think as we look back at that, it was not only the right thing to do, it was -- politically, it was the right thing to do morally. And so, sometimes presidents have to lead. They've got to bring the country along. And for President Obama, this is one such case.

TAPPER: And, in fact, the House of Representatives, Republican at the time, voted against continuing the mission in that area and the NATO mission.

Dee Dee Myers, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Coming up in THE LEAD: he calls the rebels terrorists and says the U.S. does not have evidence of a chemical attack. Syrian President Bashar al Assad speaks and we'll get reaction from the Syrian opposition.

And next, he admitted to driving drunk and killing a man and today, he was finally charged with the crime. What does the victim's family think about the online confession?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our national lead: George Zimmerman's latest post-acquittal problem. More serious than a speeding ticket this time. Police in Lake Mary, Florida, near Sanford, say Zimmerman threatened his father-in-law with a weapon. This allegedly, allegedly happened after Zimmerman, his estranged wife Shellie and her father were involved in some kind of domestic fight.

Police say Shellie Zimmerman called 911. She filed for divorce last week. Police say George Zimmerman was put in investigative detention this afternoon.

"The Florida Sun Sentinel" newspaper reports he's no longer in custody and is cooperating with police. No word about possible charges. His brother cautions the public not to jump to conclusions.

Now an update on the startling online confession that went viral. Prosecutors in Ohio did not take long to act on it. Matthew Cordle indicted today on homicide and DUI charges.

Last week, Cordle turned YouTube into his own confessional, admitting he was drunk and driving the wrong way down a Columbus interstate when he slammed into another vehicle, killing a 61-year-old man. Vincent Canzani's family thinks Cordle's remorse is real. Cordle is due in court tomorrow and could get more than eight years in prison.

And now to the money lead. Apparently, flat is the new awesome in Silicon Valley. There are reports that Google will have a new look soon. The company is not talking but people who search for such things found an example of a possible new logo.

You see the old one on top, the newer one on the bottom. Not a huge difference. The letters are a little more conservatively dressed. Its Internet rival Yahoo! unveiled a bold new logo last week. You could see its cleaner lines and Yahoo! put the exclamation point on something of a diet.

Coming up, we'll hear what the rebels think American intervention will do to the Syrian civil war.

And members of his own party do not support the president's plan. Is the Syrian crisis driving a wedge between Democrats?

Back in just a few.