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Interview With Iowa Senator Joni Ernst; Syria Attack Fallout; Trump Orders Strike Summit with China President. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You know it's a busy news day when a new Supreme Court justice is confirmed, and that's not even close to our top story.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The commander in chief authorizing the biggest military action of his presidency, green-lighting missile strikes against the Syrian regime. Now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says the United States is ready to do more. It is? What is it? What's the next move for the president?

Then, is Russia at all complicit in the deadly chemical attack from earlier this week? The U.S. military says it is now looking for evidence that the Kremlin bombed a hospital in Syria to destroy evidence. Is there any proof of this charge? We will talk to a senator who was just briefed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Plus, screaming and running for their lives as a hijacked truck plows through a crowded street. Now at least four people are dead after another likely terrorist attack turning a vehicle into a weapon.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump campaigned, as you know, on a platform of removing America from foreign entanglements. Last week, his foreign policy team said that mind-set extended to Syria, where they would not push for the removal of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.

And then Assad appeared, again, to use chemical weapons against his own people. It was hardly the first time he had done so. It frankly wasn't even the deadliest attack. That was in 2013, and citizen Trump at that point opposed any intervention.

But this time, President Trump, well, he threw his longstanding position out the window. His decision to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria is drawing praise from lawmakers from both parties and from heads of state and Syrian activists around the world, even as many ask, what are the next steps, what is the strategy, if any, and why the change of position? U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is warning that the U.S. is prepared to do

more if a political solution is not reached,while the White House will not say definitively whether President Trump believes Assad needs to be pushed from power.

CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto joins me now.

And, Jim, Putin, the government of Russia objected to its strike. What are they saying? What are their objections? .

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's an open question now as to whether Russia might have been complicit in this strike.

And, remember, Secretary of State Tillerson said that Russia was either incompetent or complicit in allowing Syria to carry out this chemical weapons attack. Now the Pentagon investigating. It has evidence of the possibility that Russian military forces either knew about this attack in advance or possibly even took part in it. Explosive. They are still investigating.

A reminder to our viewers that some of these images that you will see are disturbing.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week, specifically whether a Russian warplane dropped a bomb on a hospital treating victims of the attack five hours later, perhaps to destroy evidence.

The probe comes after President Trump ordered a barrage of missiles on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the deadly attack. The first U.S. military strike against the Assad regime in the country's bloody six-year civil war.

Today, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned of possible further U.S. military action.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.

SCIUTTO: The target of the strikes was Syria's Shayrat air base, launch point for the Syrian warplanes that carried out the chemical attack.

The Pentagon says 59 of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles severely degraded or destroyed their targets, including aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel and ammunition dumps and air defense systems.

The Pentagon estimates some 20 aircraft were destroyed, though video of the aftermath shows several shelters still standing and military aircraft undamaged. U.S. missiles left the runway intact and avoided chemical weapons storage to prevent civilian casualties. And U.S. commanders warned the Russian military one hour in advance,

to avoid accidentally striking Russian military personnel or assets. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's primary backer diplomatically and militarily, immediately declared the U.S. airstrikes -- quote -- "an act of aggression" that -- quote -- "dealt a serious blow to Russia-U.S. relations."


Syria, which says nine people were killed in the strikes, claimed the U.S. has undermined the fight against terrorism.

ALI MAYHOUB, SYRIAN MILITARY SPOKESMAN (through translator): This condemnable U.S. aggression confirms the continuation of the flawed U.S. strategy, and it undermines the process of combating terrorism. It makes the U.S. a partner of the Islamic State and al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations.

SCIUTTO: The march to military action took little more than 48 hours. The planning began Tuesday, the day the world saw the first images of victims, many of them children of the chemical weapons attack.

On Thursday, before President Trump sat down to dinner with the Chinese president, he met with his national security team to discuss military options, deciding then to order the strike that night.

At 8:40 p.m. Eastern time, the middle of the night in Syria, the attack began. Two U.S. warships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, launched the 60 Tomahawk missiles towards the Syrian air base.

Trump sat through dinner alongside the Chinese president as the attack was under way. Then, just 35 minutes later, at approximately 9:15 p.m. Eastern time, the president's national security team briefed him on the mission's results.


SCIUTTO: Now, Syria says the nine people it claims were killed in the attack, they were principally military personnel.

But it should be clear that this was a very tailored military attack focused purely on one air base, part of that air base and the parts of the base that the U.S. military believes helped carry out this chemical weapons attack.

We should note that the Syrian military maintains enormous conventional military capacity, and that's been the principal way that it's been waging war on its own people, for instance, dropping barrel bombs, et cetera. Chemical weapons, horrible weapon, but most of the deaths in that war caused by conventional weapons, which Syria, the Syrian military very much maintains.

TAPPER: And which no government seems to think is atrocity worth intervening when it comes to barrel bombs, even though they are deadlier in some cases. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

If investigators do manage to find evidence that Russia was in any way complicit in the chemical weapons attack, that would add seemingly even more tension to what the Russians are describing as an already fragile relationship between them and the United States.

Let's bring in CNN correspondent Paula Newton from Moscow.

And, Paula, how is the Putin government responding?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, officially, they are saying this is an aggressive action. You had the prime minister here, Dmitry Medvedev, saying, look, how does this help us fight ISIS in Syria?

He is saying that the United States and Russia are essentially this close, on the verge to a conflict in Syria. But, behind the scenes, you know, this is a few days that the Kremlin wants to forget. They had everything they wanted in Syria. They were the brokers.

You know, it was notable last week, Jake, that when they were bringing together the parties in the cease-fire, the United States was nowhere to be found, and you had Secretary of State Tillerson and Nikki Haley saying, well, yes, perhaps Assad need to stay in power.

What does this give Russia? Geopolitically, it gives them that foothold back in the Middle East they have been trying to get for a year-and-a-half now. It was mission accomplished until this happened.

And the explosive allegations out of the Pentagon yet to be proven will definitely heat things up for when Tillerson comes here the middle of next week.

TAPPER: All right, Paula Newton, thank you so much.

Key members of the House and Senate were just briefed by the administration on these strikes against the Syrian regime. What did they learn? We will ask a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee next.



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

Sticking with our world lead, of course, the day offer President Trump ordered a military strike against the Syrian regime, members of Congress from both parties are learning more about the results, as well as how the decision was made.

And joining me now is Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa. She is a combat veteran who served in the National Guard. And she now sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R), IOWA: Thank you, Jake. It's good to be with you.

TAPPER: So, you just came out of a briefing on the attack. What more can you tell us?

ERNST: Well, we did sit down with General Dunford.

And he gave an overview and a time frame of the events as they occurred and also good discussion about who was involved in that decision process in advising the White House.

I think the president did make a good assessment, a good call on the situation. And it was a very surgical strike on the assets that were in Syria that were involved with this chemical attack against Assad's population.

TAPPER: And what did the administration officials have to stay or General Dunford about any sort of larger plan, larger strategy and any next steps?

ERNST: Well, of course, they will be game-planning that in the days to come. They have already started that assessment.

But this was, again, I just want to remind everyone that this was a one-time attack on the assets that were used in a chemical weapons attack against the people of Syria. So it was in response to a very specific attack. It's not an ongoing operation.

TAPPER: Did General Dunford have anything to say about the possibility -- and we're being told that the Pentagon is looking into the possibility -- that Russian forces were actually involved in the chemical weapon attack against Syria, Syrian individuals earlier this week?

ERNST: That investigation will continue.

However, at this time, they don't have any concrete evidence that shows that Russia was involved. They have been complacent, I think, in a number of operations that have gone on in Syria, but there is no evidence to say that they worked with Syria on the specific attack.

TAPPER: As President Obama was weighing taking action against Assad's forces in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack killed more than 1,400 Syrians in the suburbs of Damascus, then citizen Trump tweeted the warning -- quote -- "The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not."

Obviously, President Trump did not get congressional approval before launching the attack yesterday. What about this situation has changed, do you think?

ERNST: Well, I can't speak for the folks in 2013 or for the -- the then citizen Trump's comments.

However, I can say that I do think it was appropriate.

[16:15:02] He did involve discussions with members of Congress as well as his national security team. In moving forward, we do know that the vice president will be coming back to Congress in upcoming days and laying out the case and the reasons they did engage on this particular mission.

So, again, I can't speak to citizen Trump's comments at that time, but I do believe in this specific instance that the president made the appropriate call.

TAPPER: President Trump said that the attack on Syria was in the vital national security interest of the United States. In 2013, after the large chemical weapons attack, you said that President Obama had failed to explain, quote, "Why it is in our vital interests to use force in the midst of Syria's ongoing civil war." Has President Trump sufficiently explained in this instance why this attack is in our national interests and makes us safer?

ERNST: I think he has. He has laid out the case. Humanitarian atrocities, of course, the use of the chemical weapons, but we also have ISIS engaged in that region, and we simply don't want to see chemicals fall into the hands of ISIS operators. There's an ongoing civil war, but that paired with the ISIS threat makes it even more imperative that we make sure we're destroying any of those delivery systems.

But then we also need to engage the United Nations and make sure that we can push for investigation throughout Syria and make sure that if there are residual chemical weapons that the United Nations is engaging, finding those weapons and making sure they are disposed of.

TAPPER: And, lastly, Senator, President Trump said the other day the images of beautiful little babies suffering after the chemical weapons attack changed his -- his calculus on Syria and on Assad. Listen to what Hillary Clinton just said about that.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close America's doors to them.


TAPPER: Do you think that President Trump should also change his position on allowing Syrian refugee babies, children and their mothers perhaps, into the United States?

ERNST: Well, that is up to president Trump. However, I would state that many of those families that are coming from those countries, especially Syria, they wish to stay in their homelands, and I have spoken with Syrian refugees. I've done that in the past, and all of those that I spoke with had emphasized to me that they would stay in their home country if they knew they were safe. So, I think it's important that we are interrupting what's going on,

making sure that there are no more chemical attacks, but also getting to the root cause of the problem and making sure that they are protected from ISIS and from this horrible regime.

I do support the use of safe zones. I think that's a wise decision and something we need to explore further. However, we need to have an overarching strategy with how we deal with Syria and other issues in the Middle East. We've got to get the root cause of the problem under control.

TAPPER: Indeed. The secretary of defense once said that the Middle East, including Syria, was a strategy-free zone.

Senator Joni Ernst, we thank you for your time.

ERNST: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: The White House now revealing more details about when the president decided to take this action. Stick around. We all have more.


[16:22:14] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump's dramatic decision to order a military strike played out in front of a rather unusual audience of one, China's President Xi Jinping, as a high-stakes summit between the two world superpowers became the backdrop to the president's first military strike.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president in Palm Beach.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's biggest commander-in-chief moment, launching air strikes in Syria, dramatically changing the tone for his first meeting today with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding. We look forward to being together many times in the future, and I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away.

ZELENY: Meeting today at his Mar-a-Lago resort, the president letting the missile strikes speak for themselves.

REPORTER: Mr. President, what's the end goal with the strikes on Syria?

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

ZELENY: The president's decision to strike Thursday evening was a dramatic turnaround in his posture towards Syria. TRUMP: It is in this vital national security interest of the United

States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

ZELENY: White House aides said the decision unfolded like this over a three-day period this week. At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the president learns of the chemical attack in Syria. At 3:00 p.m. Wednesday the president is briefed on options by his national security team. At 1:00 p.m. Thursday, the president convening a meeting of his top advisers aboard Air Force One before coming back to tell reporters this.

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.

ZELENY: And at 4:00 p.m. Thursday, after arriving at Mar-a-Lago, he gave the order to strike after his fourth meeting with his national security team.

The most consequential move of the young Trump presidency unfolding against the deepening fracture inside the West Wing over Syria and the broader direction of the White House. The chief strategist Steve Bannon, demoted from his seat on the National Security Council earlier this week, argued against the Syria strikes, CNN has learned. He's increasingly at odds with Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, who now has had a more prominent seat at the table as these behind-the-scenes photographs show.

The strikes in Syria are a departure from the president's America First agenda, crafted by Bannon. While widely praised for taking action, Republicans and Democrats today called on the White House to explain its new stand towards Syria.

[16:25:07] SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: I don't think they have a policy yet but they better have one because things probably are not going to get better in the Syria area there.


ZELENY: Now, a few moments ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters here at Mar-a-Lago that the future of any U.S. action in Syria depends on the regime.

Jake, he said this, and I quote, "The future will be guided by how we see their reaction," meaning if there's any retaliation, the U.S., of course, reserves the right to do the same -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

Another possible terrorist attack using a truck to plow into a crowd of innocent people. Now, police have made an arrest.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have more breaking news. CNN is learning one person has been arrested in that deadly truck attack in Stockholm, Sweden.