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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Will Trump Send Troops to Syria?; Republicans Go Nuclear on Supreme Court Pick; Republican Chairman Steps Down From Russia Investigation. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think Don Rickles got to heaven and started insulting Saint Peter?

Rest in peace, Mr. Rickles.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Putting America first to the test. President Trump now says -- quote -- "Something should happen" to Syria's dictator after that horrific chemical weapons attack this week. Is the U.S. military getting ready to strike?

And what's different about this chemical weapons attack than the one President Trump didn't want responded to in 2013?

Bowing out. Why did the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee step aside from the investigation into Russia's meddling in the election weeks after his secret meeting at the White House?

And this is hardly fake news. A high school newspaper uncovers some shady truths about the new principal. Now she has resigned and she would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for the meddling kids. We will talk to the teenage journalists about what they found and how.

Hello, everybody. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin with our lead today.

After a devastating chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013 that killed around 1,400 Syrians, Donald Trump told President Obama he would be a fool to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was thought to be responsible for the attack.

Just days ago, members of the Trump administration were saying that removing Assad was no longer a priority. But now after another chemical weapons attack, this one killing nearly 100 people, President Trump just minutes ago told reporters that -- quote -- "Something should happen" regarding Assad.

A source telling CNN that the president also told some members of Congress today that he is considering military action against the Syrian regime.

Let's get right to CNN's Jim Acosta in Palm Beach, Florida, where Mr. Trump just landed for meetings with the Chinese president.

Jim, what can you tell us about anything we might know about President Trump's plans for Syria?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can tell you, Jake, that now that the president is on the ground here in Florida for this meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, the president is planning to hold a meeting with some of his national security team later on this evening, those officials including the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

He's also expected to talk to the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, as well as other members of the Cabinet, Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, that meeting expected to take place later on this evening, according to a White House official.

Now, as you mentioned, Jake, just a few moments ago, the president landed in Florida. He did talk to reporters on Air Force One about the situation in Syria. And as you just said a few moments ago, it does appear that the calculus, that the equation for this administration has changed very much when it comes to this question of Syria after the apparent chemical weapons attack conducted by the Syrian regime against civilians just a few days ago.

The president now telling reporters on Air Force One, now signaling to the world that something should happen to Syria as a response to that chemical weapons attack. Here is what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Do you think Assad should leave power?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes, and it shouldn't have happened. And it shouldn't be allowed to happen.

QUESTION: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?

TRUMP: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there, and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, just before the president landed here in Florida for this meeting with the Chinese president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave what was a very extraordinary news conference and talked to reporters about his current thinking when it comes to Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Jake, it was just last week when Secretary of State Tillerson told reporters, said to the world that perhaps Bashar al-Assad would be staying in Syria, that the U.S. would not be pursuing a regime policy against Bashar al-Assad.

But he made it very clear during those comments to the media this afternoon that not only does the U.S. believe that Assad is responsible for that chemical weapons attack, that something should happen, that something should take place in terms of a military response. He even went as far as to say, Jake, that the U.S. is talking with its partners, with international partners -- didn't specify which ones -- about some kind of military response to Bashar al-Assad.

That is just an extraordinary reversal for an administration that just last week, Jake, was talking about leaving Bashar al-Assad in power.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta in Palm Beach with the president, thank you so much.

Exactly what military options might President Trump have if he does decide to strike the Syrian regime after this horrific chemical weapons attack on its own people?

Let's get right to Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon for us.

Barbara, when asked today if Assad should leave power, President Trump, as you heard, said something should happen. Previous presidents have attempted to get international support, including military support, before launching any sort of campaign. Is that on the agenda for President Trump and his administration?

[16:05:14]

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I don't know that he feels he needs international support. There's a lot of international condemnation already about this attack.

You will remember citizen Donald Trump advised President Obama not to militarily go into Syria. Now that Mr. Trump is president, he's beginning to have quite a different view.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): A grieving father cradling his dead children, as the death toll rises, more bodies recovered, 86 murdered, including 26 children. Tonight, the Trump administration is considering airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime in direct retaliation for bombing with nerve agent here in Northern Syria's Idlib province.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack which violates all previous U.N. resolutions, violates international norms and long- held agreements between parties, including the Syrian regime, the Russian government, and all other members of the U.N. Security Council. It is a serious matter. It requires a serious response.

STARR: Radar tracks show regime planes were in the air at the time of the attack. Heat signatures showed those planes dropped bombs on areas where civilians suffered exposure to nerve agents.

Military commanders have longstanding options for attacking Assad. President Trump could authorize a limited strike, hitting airfields where the attacking aircraft launched. But Assad can still use artillery and rocket shells filled with deadly agent and barrel bombs thrown out of helicopters.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They can be reconstructed anywhere. It is not like there's a factory where these are being produced. So, you may send a signal, but it isn't going to likely affect their capability of continuing to do these kind of things to the civilian environment of Syria.

STARR: The U.S. military has warships and aircraft in the area ready to go. In the Mediterranean, U.S. Navy warships, the USS Ross and USS Porter, could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. The U.S. could also fly stealth aircraft, B-2 bombers, with relative safety to strike targets.

President Trump says his opposition to going into Syria has changed.

TRUMP: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, and people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red lines, many, many lines.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: One of the big challenges for the military right now, however, will be to make sure, if they do get the order to strike, that they don't inadvertently strike areas where Russian troops are on the ground -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us, thank you.

So, just what options in Syria would Congress be willing to approve? Will they even be brought into the loop? We will talk to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:12:05]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

President Trump is considering military action against the Syrian regime after a suspected chemical weapons attack against its own people.

Joining me now to discuss all of this, Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, as always, thanks for joining us.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Jake, always good to be with you. Thank you. TAPPER: So, it is very clear that the president is considering some

sort of response, some sort of retaliation, attack, whatever you want to call it against Assad and his forces after the chemical weapons attack. He says something should happen. What would you advise him to do?

CORKER: Well, I think, first of all, he has military leaders developing that. I would advise him certainly to come to Congress with that.

I think that, you know, that's obviously what we did back in 2013. Unfortunately, President Obama didn't pursue that route, and this is what's led to where we are today.

But I would say, look, listen to your advisers. I think something is appropriate now. I absolutely -- I did then back in 2013. Obviously, it would be good to get the international community with us, or many members, other allies with us in this.

And it needs to be proportional. Obviously, the American people are not interested in some ground war or something that's long-term, but I think an appropriate response is necessary.

And I think one of those, by the way, is Russia, who, you know, wants to be on the world stage. They should show that they're worthy of being on the world stage by withdrawing all support for Assad. So that's a whole other step that needs to be taken, and I would hope the president and other civilized countries would be encouraging Putin to do the same.

TAPPER: Do you think -- when you say that you want President Trump to come to Congress, are you saying that he should seek a vote, an authorization for the use of military force?

CORKER: So, the -- you know, we -- back in 2013, just comparatively, there was a 10-hour operation that was planned off the Mediterranean. The president did come and seek an authorization for the use of force. I always think that's healthy. We passed one out of our committee.

It was never taken up on the floor, because the president went in another direction, and, obviously, that's where the red line problem began. Here, yes, I would -- at a minimum, depending on -- again, I don't know what kind of action we're talking about here, OK?

It may be such that that's not necessary, that just informing those who are in these particular areas of what he thinks he may do. But, again, it is hard to respond to that, Jake, because I don't really know what it is that they may be considering doing.

TAPPER: The president said that the attack that happened this week changed his view on Syria and Assad.

[16:15:01] In 2013, as you no doubt remember, Assad was blamed for killing more people that this week's attack, 1,400 people in a chemical weapon attack. CNN aired these awful videos showing Syrians foaming at the mouth, convulsing and dying. Back then, when President Obama was debating retaliation, as you've often referenced, President Trump tweeted him urging him not to take action. People are allowed to change their minds, I understand that.

But what's different about this attack for President Trump that changes his way of thinking?

CORKER: I don't know, but I was just sharing with others in the last meeting I was in, to me it was a very clarifying moment for the president. I've seen him evolve, Jake, in a good way on China, evolve in a good way on NATO, evolve in a good way on Israel.

And I think that this moment of really sort of moral clarity, which I think, you know, the president has come into office and maybe -- maybe not had the experiences of those of us who have seen these people in refugee camps, have seen what this monster Assad has done in torturing people, and I think this was a clarifying moment for him. I think it's real, by the way.

And for the good of our country, for him to understand that our great nation with the values that we espouse and have cannot stand for people to be chemical weaponed in this way. To me, that's very clarifying. And, obviously, I hope that he will keep his rhetoric low. I hope he doesn't make -- and I haven't heard him do that, but keep his rhetoric low, listen to -- listen to military and other advisers and then let's figure out what is appropriate to happen here.

TAPPER: In terms of how clarifying this is, I wonder if you still have any concerns given that I've heard you criticize Syria's Assad's patron, Putin, and Russia. I heard U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley criticize Russia. I have not heard President Trump hold Putin or Russia responsible in any way. He's been far more critical of Barack Obama on this issue than Vladimir Putin.

Why?

CORKER: Yes, I don't know. I have seen, by the way, an evolution even in Russia. I would like to see more.

Look, I'm just being honest with you. I was very concerned in the beginning that there may be an attempt to do some cheap deal with Russia relative to Ukraine and Crimea and Syria. I don't think there's any chance of that now. I think the president, the longer he's in office, the more he has people coming in the scene from other countries, I think that he is developing a body of knowledge and experience that will keep anything like that from occurring and he'll have an opportunity to see firsthand right now.

I mean, is Putin going to stand beside -- behind this sordid monster? Is he going to do that? I think it will be another one of those, as we've used in the past, one of those educational moments for him.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Bob Corker, thank you so much.

CORKER: Thank you.

TAPPER: Appreciate your time, sir. CORKER: Yes, sir, thank you.

TAPPER: Democrats and Republicans going to extremes on the Judge Gorsuch Supreme Court confirmation. But which party will be damaged the most by breaking decades of precedence? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:22:10] TAPPER: We're back now with the politics lead and the drama playing out in the U.S. Senate.

The rules were just changed on how the Senate approves Supreme Court justice nominees with both sides using historic and some might say extreme measures. Democrats tried to filibuster the vote against Judge Neil Gorsuch, a move rarely used against Supreme Court nominees and not successfully used since 1968. That quickly led Republicans, the majority party, to invoke the so-called nuclear option, changing the rules of the Senate before the minority party could demand a cloture vote requiring 60 votes before proceeding to the up or down vote on the nominee.

Now it will take only 51 senators to start the process.

CNN Sunlen Serfaty joins me now live on Capitol Hill.

And, Sunlen, some Republicans celebrated ending the filibuster. We saw some slaps of five by Mr. McConnell but Democrats and even some Republicans are calling this a sad day for the Senate.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. One Democrat afterwards declaring that the dark deed is done. But as you noted, Republicans too admitting some concerns that this places even less emphasis on forging compromise up here on Capitol Hill, and it has some serious implications to the Senate beyond just talking about Supreme Court nominees.

Here is some of the rhetoric in the halls of Congress today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think it is a very sad day for the Senate because we have now destroyed 200 years of tradition.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: A lot more -- it is unfortunate. The Senate should be different. That Senate should not be the House with a six-year term.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think we've already slid down the slope. I mean that's -- Harry Reid decided that executive nominations would be done by simple majority and that's -- we just simply went with the Harry Reid rule today.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

SERFATY: So, Senator Paul there arguing that the need for compromise is something that was already being deteriorated by the Democrats back in 2013. Certainly a lot of blame to go around up here, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty, Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much.

About two weeks after his secret White House meeting, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Devin Nunes, is stepping aside from the Russia investigation. Why?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:38] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The House Committee investigating any possible collusion between President Trump and his team with Russian officials and others known to U.S. intelligence is undergoing more upheaval after embattled Chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside this morning pending an ethics committee inquiry.

CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju is live for us on Capitol Hill.

Manu, I have to say I was surprised. I saw the complaint from the good government groups against Nunes, but I didn't think they would be taken that seriously by the ethics committee and I certainly didn't think it would lead to Nunes recusing himself.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Jake, you're not the only one surprised. Even members of Nunes' own intelligence committee were surprised. In a closed door meeting earlier today, Nunes abruptly left and members learned when they were handed a press release with a statement from Nunes saying he was going to step aside.

Now, Jake, this revelation of the House Ethics Committee is investigating whether or not Mr. Nunes revealed any classified information just became the latest in a string of controversies that became too much for Nunes to sustain.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, the embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee forced to step aside from leading the investigation into Russia amid growing accusations that he had grown too close to the White House.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Strict procedures for --

RAJU: Already under siege, Congressman Devin Nunes facing a new problem, a House Ethics investigation into whether he improperly disclosed information about top secret intelligence with comments like this.