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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
U.S. Warns Syria: We Are Prepared To Do More; U.S. Investigating Russia Role In Syria Attack; Russia: Risk Of Collision With U.S. "Significantly Increased" Aired 7-8p ET
Aired April 7, 2017 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- a lot of pressure to start on if they need it sometimes soon -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, Phil. Thank you. That's it for me. Thanks for watching. Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" starts right now.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, breaking news, a dire warning of more to come. Less than 24 hours after a massive cruise missile strike, the Trump administration putting Syria on notice.
Plus, the U.S. and Russia on a collision course, was Russia involved in the gas attack on innocent children? And why would a president gas his own people? Was Assad testing Trump? Let's go OUTFRONT.
Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. We begin OUTFRONT tonight with the breaking news, ready to strike again. Tonight, we are learning that President Trump's stunning cruise missile strike on Syria may just be the beginning.
So far under Trump's direct orders, 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched, 59 of them, we are told, striking their intended targets. Those targets on the Syrian air base where Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack against innocent children just 63 hours before. Will the strike stop the Syrian dictator from gassing his own people again, though?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And tonight, the risk of a much bigger conflict on the rise, Russia, which has a massive military presence in Syria, including on the very base U.S. missiles hit, upping the ante.
The kremlin which back Bashar al-Assad saying the risk of a U.S.- Russia collision in Syria, has, quote, "significantly increased," this as the Pentagon at this hour is investigating whether Putin's Russia was involved in the horrific chemical attack itself. Russia just moments ago denying that allegation to CNN. We were covering this breaking story from every angle. Our reporters are spread around the world tonight.
We begin with Barbara Star OUTFRONT at the center of it all at the Pentagon. Barbara, is there evidence of Russian involvement?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Erin. That is exactly what the Pentagon wants to know. There is a new revelation tonight. There was a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was attacked. The U.S. is trying to figure out at this hour just how involved the Russians really were.
STARR (voice-over): This was the message President Trump wanted to send to Bashar al-Assad, attack with chemical weapons, the U.S. will attack you back. Fifty nine cruise missiles striking the Syrian air base the U.S. says was used to launch aircraft, killing men, women, and children Tuesday with a nerve agent-filled bomb.
The Pentagon said the strikes severely degraded or destroyed their intended targets, which included aircraft and aircraft shelters, fuel, and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers and their defense systems.
HALEY: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more.
STARR: But this was also a message to Moscow, which denies that Syrian chemical attack even happened.
MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN (through translator): To justify its armed action Washington has entirely twisted what happened in Idlib. The American side cannot understand that the Syrian government troops did not use chemical weapons there. Damascus simply does not possess it.
STARR: Many of these people died of asphyxiation from what's believed to be sarin gas. The U.S. says it will investigate any possibility of Russian complicity including Russian troops at the air base where this Russian drone captured the aftermath of the U.S. attack.
Did the Russians know anything about the chemical bombing? Was it a Russian warplane that later bombed a hospital, treating victims, perhaps trying to destroy evidence?
And after years of regime chemical attacks, U.S. military officials now say they will more aggressively monitor Syria's chemical weapons program and potential Russian involvement.
The Pentagon showed what it says was proof to justify the limited U.S. strike. The track of the Syrian plane and imagery of where the nerve agent bomb hit. The Syrian military denied using chemical weapons, blaming terrorist groups. 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.
STARR: This was a very limited strike by the U.S. military. That was their order. They never intended to destroy the airfield. So the key question tonight, Erin, is how soon will that airfield be back up and running and will the Russians return -- Erin.
BURNETT: Barbara, thank you very much. I want to go straight to Jeff Zeleny outside Mar-a-Lago where the president is tonight. Jeff, we heard there Ambassador Nikki Haley, saying in her words, we are prepared to do more. What's next?
[19:05:05]JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Erin. And those were the strongest words from the administration, from the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley there, who has been leading the way in recent days in terms of messaging here.
The question really is what Syria does next. We also heard here in Florida from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just a short time ago late this afternoon. He said, you know, the future depends on -- he said the future will be guided by their reaction.
So throughout the weekend here, in the coming hours, indeed, the United States largely based here with the president at his Mar-a-Lago resort. He has his whole command center with him. They are watching the reaction here in Syria.
Will there be more chemical attacks? Will planes start flying again? Now, Erin, this all speaks to what the Trump doctrine is, what his policy will be. He has shown he's willing to act and act decisively.
It was just about three days or so ago where he first started thinking about his here, but his America's first agenda on war and peace where he once said, look, Syria's not our problem suddenly is his problem.
So by acting once he's sure to act again. As you mentioned earlier, Erin, all of the focus is also on Russia. The secretary of state will be going there next week. That's where this goes next here. But the president and his team standing by tonight and watching and waiting for the reaction in Syria -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right, Jeff, thank you. Let's go to Clarissa Ward on the Syria-Turkish border tonight. Clarissa, it appears that the Syrian dictator is defiant tonight.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, I think on the surface of it Assad is presenting a defiant front. He issued a bombastic statement calling the U.S. shortsighted and we are hearing reports from activists inside Idlib Province, which is the same province where that chemical attack took place that there have been airstrikes, not chemical attacks, but airstrikes from regime warplanes this evening. At the same time, I don't think there's any doubt that last night's U.S. strike on the Syrian regime had definitely had an impact on the battlefield. Not so much perhaps in terms of curtailing the winning streak that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been on.
But certainly in temples of re-establishing America as having a prominent voice at the negotiating table, as having leverage and as providing a kind of counterbalance to the Russian domination of the Syrian conflict.
I don't think anyone this time a week ago would have expected that we would be hearing Syrian rebels referring affectionately to President Trump by the (inaudible). This is truly stunning and surreal stop.
At the same time, President Bashar al-Assad likely seen this as a slap on the wrist. He may now hold back from using chemical weapons again, but nobody on the ground, Erin, is expecting him to stop using those crudely fashioned homemade so-called barrel bombs and other horrific munitions -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right, thank you very much, Clarissa. I want to go now to Elliott Abrams, the former deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, Retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks, former NATO supreme allied commander, Retired General Wesley Clark, and David Sanger, the national security correspondent for the "New York Times."
Gentlemen, you are the ones we need to hear from. General Marks, I want to start with what happened here. We have some new satellite images that we have obtained. I want to show them to everyone.
What you're looking at right now is the air base after the strike. In white are the areas that were damaged. What you can see, though, is apparently no damage to the runways. What do you see here, General?
MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): What you see is both of the runways, the primary runways were not damaged. Let's look back and see that the t-lambs don't have enough explosives in them to crater the runways.
So what the intended targets were, were the hangars for the aircraft and the workshops and buildings that were attendant to the airfield that would allow for maintenance and storage and air defense capabilities, et cetera.
So very precisely those missiles went after facilities that would house aircraft or helicopters or all of those support mechanisms that were necessary to run -- to executive and operate the runway. It did not go after the runway. It was not cratered.
BURNETT: So let me ask you, General Clark, is that just give the U.S. room to up the ante? They used a missile that couldn't do that. If they wanted to do that, they could do that down the line if Bashar al- Assad uses those runways? What do you think the reason is here? Obviously, if you took out the runway, a lay person would say that would make sense. They obviously chose not to do that. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: They chose not to do it because they wanted to strike with t-lams and the t-lam is fighters that is not the right weapon to take out a runway. But if you take out runways, they can be repaired in a couple of days too. This strike was symbolic. It was not really a powerful military blow. It was a sign that the United States is engaged.
[19:10:03]That we object to the use of chemical weapons and that we could do more and of course, we could do more. But here's the other thing about this. Apparently, we talked to the Russians and the Russians didn't use their modern air defense systems.
They've got air defense systems that might be able to interfere with our t-lams. So we've never really been up against the situation like that. We've never seen the air defense systems used against us. We don't know what the results would be.
Obviously, if we thought they were going to use them against us, we might use different weapons. So there's a lot at stake here in what happens next.
BURNETT: So David Sanger, let me ask you about that because in terms of what the strike did, we do understand that as part of that infrastructure it took out around the runways, 20 Syrian planes were destroyed, but no chemical weapons. The Pentagon said this is the base where they loaded the chemical weapons on that airplane and took off to bomb those innocent children. They didn't destroy the chemical weapons, why not, David?
DAVID SANGER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, first thing, if you hit the chemical weapons, you have the possibility that you're creating exactly the kind of chemical disaster that you're trying to avoid. It would be very easy for the Russians and Syrians to turn around and say now it's the Americans spreading chemicals around the area.
So they were looking to avoid that. I think the key to this is it was symbolic. It was supposed to pave the way for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's trip to Moscow, which was previously scheduled for next week and gives him the opportunity as we discussed with you last night, Erin, to sort of do a two-step of saying this president is willing to get engaged and is willing to keep -- to contain Assad and if necessary, go after him.
So let's talk on that basis. Now I'm not sure the Russians are going to be all that impressed with this because they know that in the end, the history that is laid out by President Trump as a candidate is that he does not want to get bogged down in the Syrian civil war, and so I suspect that the Russians will probably say nice try and move on.
BURNETT: But that's -- obviously, General Marks, more easily said than done. Once you've said something unacceptable and you've struck as a result of that militarily. When something else happens, you have to strike again. MARKS: Well, Erin, I hope we don't assume a policy of reacting to what happens next. I hope we can take the initiative and shape what it is we want to try to achieve in Syria. So what's missing from all of this is not simply the next step.
But it's a description of what the desire end state is so that the planners can then walk back from that and determine what are the necessary conditions that have to be in place in order to achieve this desired instinct.
We want to hear what the strategy is. That could include long term the removal of Assad. It could be a regime change, but this strike by itself is insufficient to even come close to that. It opens the door for more.
BURNETT: Elliott, during the campaign, you were critical of Trump. You said he shouldn't be the president of the United States. He passed you over for the number two spot at the State Department, but perhaps it's even more significant then, that tonight you are saying this was a good move. You support what he did in Syria and strongly. Why?
ELLIOTT ABRAMS, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it shows the United States really is going to be much more active than it was in the previous administration. We were allowing these chemical weapons attacks to take place repeatedly in violation of Security Council resolutions, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, violation of the promises that we got from Russia.
We didn't seem to care about any of that. Now the president is saying, well, I do care. You can't do this kind of savagery without the United States reacting. It's very surprising for Donald Trump to do this, because he talked about justice and the United States protecting justice.
And Rex Tillerson talked about the international community, exactly the kind of words that they didn't -- he didn't use in last year's campaign. I'm reminded of something that Ariel Sharon said when he was prime minister of Israel. What you see from here is not what you see from there.
In other words, what you see when you're the head of government, when the responsibility is yours, and Trump has used the word responsibility repeatedly in the last few days. It's different. He's now taking that responsibility on his shoulders and saying I'm going to act.
BURNETT: David, from your reporting, when you hear this administration saying there could be more, is that just talk?
SANGER: Well, I certainly think there could be more, but the question you always have to ask for any administration, but particularly for one that came with an argument that they were there to get us out of these conflicts is more toward what end? Is regime change the ultimate end here? Certainly that was not in President Trump's statement last night. Is trying to bring an end to the Syrian civil war a political end part of it? Well, perhaps it will be, but Secretary of State Kerry went down that road for 18 months and didn't get very far.
[19:15:10]So far we haven't seen much interest in the Trump administration in trying to lead an international delegation to do that. So I think the bigger question is what is their long-term Syrian strategy and do they want to have a long-term Syrian strategy.
BURNETT: And a lot of that comes down to the big collision course tonight. Thank you, Gentlemen. You're coming back in a moment. But that of course, is the U.S. and Russia, the kremlin tonight saying that the chances of a U.S.-Russia collision have significantly increased, in their words. Are we close to a much bigger war?
Plus why would Syria's president unleash a horrific gas attack on his own people. After all this has been a civil war for almost seven years. This is the second major chemical attack. Was he testing Donald Trump?
Is a major White House shakeup in the works tonight?
BURNETT: Breaking news, Russia warning President Trump tonight, the kremlin saying the risk of a direct collision between the U.S. and Russia has, quote, "significantly increased" after America's missile strike. Russia vowing to bolster President Assad's air defense system in Syria. That, of course, could be setting the United States on a direct collision course with Russia.
Tom Foreman is OUTFRONT. Tom, this is an incredibly sobering thing to be talking about. Why does Vladimir Putin have such deep seated interests in Syria?
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is an excellent question. Why would anyone want to put his military into the middle of this kind of clash? Because they're already there. Look, this is the map of Syria. Everywhere on here, either Syrian military bases or rebel military bases, a great struggle for ground going here.
Look. Here are four big Russian bases in this country. There are thousands of Russian troops there. We don't have an exact account of how many. We know it's thousands. That means jets and helicopters and transport planes and vehicles and radar centers and aircraft defense systems.
[19:20:08]Here's some proof of that. Look at the middle flag over here on the far side. That's this area. I want you to watch. This is in 2014 when this picture was taken. Look down here and look how it changes through 2015. All of that is a brand-new state of the art Russian military base built up there.
They're not going anywhere. That's built to stay, not to go anywhere, and indeed Russia just like the United States is interested in having influence in the Middle East. They've had a long history. Syria has been a long ally and they want to hold their ground -- Erin.
BURNETT: It's been a long ally and of course, the decision by the United States under the prior administration to not get involved perhaps left a vacuum for them to build some of those installations you just so powerfully showed.
So Tom, I guess, the question is when you look at that map, as the United States thinks about striking, and additional strikes but doesn't want to have a war with Russia, how hard is it for the United States to strike and not hit Russians?
FOREMAN: It could be very hard. Now, look, the Russians are saying they don't want to cooperate as much with the U.S. in terms of sharing knowledge. Previously they were sharing knowledge in the name of, we're all just here to fight the terrorists. Now they don't want to cooperate so much.
Look at this, a few years ago when everybody in the world was worried about the chemical weapons program in Syria, including Russia, there were familiarities all over this country that had to be addressed.
The White House and others thought they had been addressed. They thought the chemical weapons threat was gone. Now it's clear it's not entirely gone. We don't know where any chemical facilities are here.
If you don't know where the chemical facilities are and you want to strike those or jets that are delivering it and you don't know where the Russians are, the potential for an accidental conflict indeed gets a whole lot higher. If that happens, it's a much bigger deal than just Syria -- Erin.
BURNETT: It certainly is. All right, Tom Foreman, thank you very much. I want to go straight back to my panel. You know, Elliott, the Russian prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev has gone so far today as to say the attack was on the brink of military clashes with Russia. Those are his words. How tense is this situation tonight?
ABRAMS: I would not overrate it. I don't think it's that tense. I think they're trying rhetorically to scare us out of the Middle East and I think we should not be scared out of the Middle East. We still have much greater military presence in the region than they do.
They're in the position of backing a guy who's using chemical weapons who they themselves have said is an abomination. We should not be so scared. This is what happened in the Obama administration. Everything has a certain degree of risk.
You can talk yourself into doing nothing and then you create a vacuum and into it moves Vladimir Putin, who loves vacuums. He doesn't take risk. In Georgia, Ukraine, he moved when there is a vacuum. In Syria, he doesn't touch NATO because he doesn't take risky moves.
BURNETT: General Marks, though, you have the Pentagon tonight looking into whether Russia was complicit in this chemical attack itself, right, which would take this to a whole new level. You also have reports tonight that the Russians are increasing their support of air defense systems to Assad, obviously in response to the U.S. missile strikes, which would seem they are going to help him defend against those. When you look at it that way, it does seem like they are trying to raise tensions.
MARKS: Well, it does, Erin. Let me address both of those very briefly. They are complicit in this strike. They were present at the airfield and throughout the country. They have to be blind whereas the secretary of state said incompetent not know that the Syrians were uploading chemical weapons and were about to launch an attack. That's number one.
Number two, they already -- the Russians already have an incredibly robust air defense capability. There is -- Russia, much like the United States, would never deploy one soldier without a protective dome over that soldier on the ground. That's air defense.
So they have a very strong capability. For them to say they're going to thicken air defense is much to do about nothing. It's already there.
BURNETT: It's already there and of course, they opted not to use it when they were given the opportunity, right? They could have upped the ante by protecting against the strike itself.
BURNETT: They didn't do that. General Clark, Senator Marco Rubio has been incredibly direct about this, he says not only is Russia complicit, he took it a little bit further. Here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think clearly the Russians are complicit in these war crimes. If they were at that facility and they had personnel stationed at that air base, they had to have known that there was sarin gas being loaded onto those planes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: If they knew that, General Clark, then what, right? The United States is saying that this was a crime against humanity by the Syrians and worthy of a strike. If they can prove the Russians knew sarin gas was being loaded onto those planes, then what?
CLARK: Well, I think it's a great thing that we could tie them to this complicit thing. But I think one of the great weapons we have is international law and public opinion here. So I'm fine that we use t- lams, but I'd like to see us use the other weapons in the United States arsenal and especially the weapon of international law.
So let's get the evidence, facts out, Russia's complicity out there for all to see. I think this is a very important next step before we escalate militarily. Let's get the diplomatic community working around the world to bring other people in to criticize Russia's role as we show the evidence.
And let's go to China and show the evidence to China and see if China doesn't want to work with us more closely about -- with this as sort of a prelude to what we're trying to do in North Korea.
I think this is an opportunity for the United States, if we put our chips on the table with the t-lams, let's use diplomacy in a really powerful and concerted way to shape this problem and try to resolve it without more destruction.
BURNETT: All right, thank you all very much tonight. Next, more breaking news at this moment, the possibility of a major White House shake up. This is breaking at this moment. We'll get you the very latest on what we're hearing on that as our reporters break this.
Also coming up later this hour, we will talk about the same President Trump who launched a major strike against Syria who once said this --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Why can't we let ISIS and Syria fight and let Russia -- they're in Syria already -- let them fight ISIS?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[19:30:34] BURNETT: Tonight, the Trump administration warning the missile strikes on Syria could be just the beginning. The president himself today, though, silent over his decision to launch the attack. The president refusing to answer reporter questions about the mission today. His silence, a sharp contrast to the man who for years spoke out against military action in Syria.
Brianna Keilar is OUTFRONT.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump has long said the U.S. should keep to itself.
TRUMP: I'm not and I don't want to be the president of the world. I'm the president of the United States.
KEILAR: That was before his decision to attack Syria in response to horrific pictures of a chemical weapons attack on civilians there.
TRUMP: Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.
These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.
My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.
KEILAR: In fact, it has completely reversed. In 2013, when it was first confirmed the Syrian government was using chemical weapons on its own people, as pictures came to light of an attack much like the one we've seen this week, President Obama weighed whether to make good on an earlier threat.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A red line for us is we see a whole bunch of chemical weapon moving around or being utilized.
KEILAR: At the time, Trump tweeted repeatedly, opposing action. "To our very foolish leader," he said, "do not attack Syria. If you do, very many bad things will happen and from that fight, the U.S. gets nothing." "There is no up side and tremendous downside."
And he told OUTFRONT --
TRUMP: Why can't we let ISIS and Syria fight and let Russia -- they're in Syria already -- let them fight ISIS.
KEILAR: Then, Thursday, an about-face.
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.
KEILAR: And Trump's decision to strike Syria was a unilateral one, after once chastening President Obama for considering a go-it-alone approach. "The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not," Trump tweeted in 2013.
President Obama was ultimately unable to, and scrapped plans to strike Syria until 2014, when Arab countries also participated in military action.
But perhaps this is also classic Trump, championing the element of surprise in foreign policy.
TRUMP: I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or the other.
KEILAR: And obsessed with appearing strong.
TRUMP: If President Obama's goal had been to weaken America, he could not have done a better job.
KEILAR: It's also changed the narrative long plaguing the Trump administration, the drip, drip, drip of the stories about his campaign officials' ties to Russia and their meetings often undisclosed with Russian officials during and after Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election -- Erin.
BURNETT: Brianna, thank you.
OUTFRONT now, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum, Jen Psaki, former State Department spokesperson, Mark Preston, senior political analyst, and Jamie Gangel, our special correspondent. Jen, let me start with you. You were in the middle of this decision- making under the Obama administration. To Brianna's point, the attack we just saw overshadowed the investigation into Trump's ties to Russia. No one's talking about it and, in fact, he appears to be taking on Russia.
Do you think the decision to strike was political?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Erin, I think there are a lot of questions we don't know the answer to. It should never be political, the decision to use military action. This was applauded by a number of Democrats, Pelosi, Schumer, and a number of Democrats in the national security community supported this action.
But where there is skepticism here is whether this is part of a larger plan or whether there is political motivation about changing the subject, about appearing strong as Brianna touched on. We don't know that. So, we need to know a lot more about what next? What is the plan when Tillerson goes to Russia? Are there more military strikes that are going to happen? How are we going to change Assad's calculation?
BURNETT: So, Senator, you know, this does play into the fact that this is a huge about-face for the president. And understood, he's now the president. When he was critical of striking, he wasn't.
[19:35:01] But he said he decided to act because of the suffering and dying children that we all saw, those horrific images. But the president saw those images in 2013 when Obama said Assad crossed a red line. At the time, Trump's response on Twitter was this, "Don't attack Syria, an attack that will bring nothing but trouble for the U.S. Focus on making our country strong and great again."
And, Senator, he was consistent in that point of view. At a town hall during the campaign, he was asked about whether he'd allow Syrian children refugees who escaped these atrocities to the United States to stay here and here's what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm wondering if you would be able to look at these children in the face and tell them that they are now allowed to go to school in a community --
TRUMP: How long have they been here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of them are here, and some of them --
TRUMP: No, no, how long have they been here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of them aren't here yet.
TRUMP: Oh, I can look in their face and say, you can't come here. Look, look, we have a country. I'll look them in the face.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: Something has changed, hasn't it, Senator?
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he's president now and that changes you. The fact that this outrageous act, this horrific act happened on your watch is now on your conscience. It's now part of your, you know, moral decision-making as to how you're going to respond.
So, I think clearly, that had an impact. I mean, you look at the president's statement. I mean, it was -- it had an impact on him that this occurred under his watch and that he was now responsible for it.
It wasn't somebody else. It wasn't a distant -- it wasn't a campaign thing. He was now responsible for making the moral determination as well as the national security determination.
And I think he acted correctly. I think it was the proper response.
But I think two things: number one, I think all this talk about, oh, you know, the Russians are going to have an easy timed with Donald Trump and there must be some deals between Trump and the Russians, I think that's hopefully in part put to bed. This is clearly not in Russia's interest. This is clearly something Donald Trump considered and has taken on the Russians directly in this attack. So, that's important.
And, secondly, I mean, we have a president now who has said that, you know, he's going to engage and he's going to engage in an area where the United States had an agreement with the Russians and the Syrians. We had a U.N. resolution. They violated that resolution. We're going to engage. We're going to make them stand up to their word and if they don't, there are going to be consequences.
And those two things I think were very important.
BURNETT: It is interesting, though, Mark, that what he did, of course, was completely contrary in the sense to the America first, I will intervene when it directly threatens our security, right? He just did what many on the left were frustrated that President Obama did, right? He intervened for a moral and humanitarian reason and his views have completely changed. I mean, I think that answer in the town hall was pretty incredible to hear.
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, flippant. It was very flippant and now he's been faced with the crisis and lives are on his hands as Senator Santorum said. He had to make a very difficult decision last night. His actions caused people's deaths. When you're the commander-in-chief, that's got to be the hardest thing you can do other than sending American troops into harm's way, knowing that they're not going to come home alive.
The big question, though, is, what is his strategy moving forward? I think we can take solace in the fact that he has surrounded himself with the likes of James Mattis, who will help him make that decision.
BURNETT: Cleanly executed, professionally executed thing on all fronts. No one has said otherwise. And, in fact, most of the world is on Trump's side. When you look at the map of the world, you see it. Country after country after country after country supporting what he did. often countries that have been incredibly critical of him. Republicans who criticize him constantly, John McCain among them, on his side.
But it is some of his most rabid supporters, Jamie, who are not. The editor of "Info Wars" wrote, "I guess Trump wasn't Putin's puppet after all, he was just another deep state neocon puppet. I'm officially off the Trump train."
Ann Coulter, "Trump campaigned on not getting involved in the Mideast, said it always helps our enemies and creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV." Pretty flippant there itself.
Will he regret, though, antagonizing his base? Ann Coulter, Info Wars, that is core of his base.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And one of the things we're hearing is that Steve Bannon, who's part of that base, Jim Acosta reported that we're being told that Steve Bannon did not want him to make this strike. That said, we're also being told, we heard hearing from a senior White House official today that Steve Bannon is being increasingly isolated. That he is on shaky ground.
So, first, you saw the demotion from the NSC, the principals commission. Now, he did not win this. And every day, there is a news story about how he and the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner are at odds. Long-term, there's a lot of talk about a White House shakeup, but --
BURNETT: Well, Trump's getting lauded for this.
[19:40:00] He feeds off that.
BURNETT: If the Bannon is the guy who said, don't do it, and Trump's being rewarded for doing that, that would hurt Bannon.
BURNETT: And the Trump world.
PRESTON: It's also worth noting, too, that his base, the "Info Wars" base and the Ann Coulters are on the fringe of the base of all the Republicans who did support him. What he's done is taken a very historical Republican stance on the issue of a robust military and taking out a dictator, or at least slowing him down.
BURNETT: Senator Santorum, will it hurt him with his base? SANTORUM: Well, I think Mark's right. I mean, you're talking about
the fringe here. I mean, this was not the base that elected Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump was elected for a lot of populist things, having to do with the economy, having to do with immigration. I think that question you said he was flippant was more an immigration question than it was a national security question.
And so, remember that was the core. There were elements that are -- Rand Paul, Ann Coulter, more libertarian-ish type Republicans has a tiny, tiny sliver and not what got him elected.
BURNETT: Jen, do you think it's fair to say that that comment, that flippant comment isn't relevant?
PSAKI: I think it's pretty relevant, because it's leading to the skepticism that you're seeing out there. We haven't seen a consistent world view from Donald Trump. We haven't seen a view of military action that's been consistent.
So, there's understandably a skepticism about what this means moving forward and if he has a full understanding of the consequences of the cost of further military action and if he's actually thought about that and asked the question. So, when you have a flippant response like that, it contributes to the view of the president and whether he has an understanding of the depth of the problems.
GANGEL: But this was a win for him, and that's what he's been looking for.
BURNETT: Without question.
GANGEL: Nancy Pelosi, you know, he has gotten support from everywhere. That's what Donald Trump wants to do. He wants to win. He wants successes.
BURNETT: Well, he has that. He has the Neil Gorsuch approval today.
Mark Preston, but does this take the wind out of the Russia investigation?
PRESTON: Absolutely. First of all --
BURNETT: I mean, he's taking on Russians directly though.
PRESTON: I hope it doesn't. The fact of the matter is I don't think he did this as a diversionary tactic, but I hope the American public doesn't just decide, oh --
BURNETT: Well, he took Russia on, so that's proof. I mean, many people are going to see it that way.
SANTORUM: Mark, how does it not take the wind out? I mean, the bottom line, this is all about they're colluding with the Russians because he's going to be a patsy for the Russians. He's not patsy for the Russians.
PRESTON: Senator, look at the situation we have right now. You have the national security advisory had to step aside. You have the chairman of the intelligence committee had to step aside. You have the attorney general had to step aside. It shouldn't. The glare shouldn't be off it. They should try to fulfill the investigation and see where it goes.
SANTORUM: I'm not arguing they shouldn't fulfill the investigation. They of course should make sure that's done. But the idea that there was some nefarious behind all this, I think is very much ameliorated by what we saw in the last 24 hours.
PSAKI: Look, I think they're entirely different topics. Yes, they're involving the same country. But we're talking about a country that is still actively trying to, you know, hack our government, hack people in the United States.
PSAKI: They're doing that around the world. There are a lot of questions we don't have answers to. We need these investigations to continue and continue at a serious level in order to get those answers. Republicans could support that.
SANTORUM: I couldn't agree more, Jen. I couldn't agree more. The point is, to what end? So, in other words, we agree that the Russians try to do things and try to disrupt. But there's always this, well, what was behind all this was to have somebody who's a friend of Russia. And that's what's now missing in this whole --
PSAKI: But that actually is not the question people should be asking. The question is not just about the 2016 election. It's much larger that that.
PSAKI: It's, what are their capacities? What are they still trying to do in our country? Russia is not our partner. It shouldn't be a partisan issue at all. I'm not saying you're suggesting that.
But this is something that is absolutely a different issue than Syria.
BURNETT: All right. Well, thanks to all. Of course, the question is, will there be a counterstrike? Will it be a cyber strike? And will Russia be the one behind that?
We'll see, obviously. There are some who are saying that could be significantly upping the ante there and attention between the U.S. and Russia.
Next, the big question that many of you may have, which is why is the Syrian president poisoning his own people with a gas? He's been bombing them with conventional weapons. Why go out suddenly with gas, sarin gas, and poison them? And why now?
And we'll take you inside a briefing today with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
[19:48:18] BURNETT: Tonight, more than six years of civil war in Syria, one of the most horrific chemical attacks coming just months into President Trump's term. Tonight, a huge question: why would Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gas his own people and why at this moment?
The images we're about to show you are disturbing.
Nick Paton Walsh is OUTFRONT.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When ordinary Syrians rose up against injustice over six years ago, they have no idea they were opening a Pandora's box of hell -- of hospitals being bombed, starvation, the rise of ISIS and even the use of mass chemical weapons by their president, Bashar al Assad.
But that's what the world let happen, until this attack on a northwestern Syrian village in Idlib province prompted the White House to act, bombing the Syrian airfield used to carry out Assad's gas attack. The scenes are horrific, children gasping for air, twitching, likely because of a nerve agent.
Why would Assad do this and why here?
It is a major rebel stronghold in his way, but it wasn't the rebel jihadists here he hit, but women and children, too -- people who may have fled violence but whose lives in rebel areas he wanted gone, to terrify those who defied him into submission. Chemical weapons can do that.
ROBERT BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Explosives don't have the same dispersal and they are more discriminate. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate and people die horrible deaths.
WALSH: The world is being here before with Assad in August 2013.
[19:50:02] He used sarin, said investigators, near Damascus, crossing Barack Obama's red line.
Obama didn't bomb, but the U.N. did take away Syria's chemical weapons. Well, most of them. Some experts believing Syria may still have hid those behind the 2013 attack to conceal their guilt.
Assad my have misread Trump's willingness to act, but he may also benefit from this as his anti-American allies like Russia now have to stick by him. BAER: I don't think, you know, judging Putin's character, he's going
to back down on Syria. He will not back away from Assad. He will not come to a compromise with the Trump administration.
WALSH: None of these high stakes chess games any consolation by those whose lives were torn apart by the invisible poison that hit Idlib's weakest.
WALSH: Now, Erin, two people thinking vital here. Firstly, Bashar al Assad, careful not to underestimate him, we should be, he has been a consummate survivor, perhaps using terror here, purely for domestic means, not worried about ramifications on the global stage. And, of course, Donald Trump as well, he has to be careful, having received frankly lauded praise, unity and enthusiasm from European countries who frankly held of an arm's length over the past few months has to be careful not to get intoxicated by the initial success here and get dragged into a longer military involvement.
There will likely be repercussion. There will likely be a response from perhaps Assad or Russia. What the U.S. has to be careful of, it doesn't leave them to be dragged into a war Barack Obama purposely kept Washington out of for eight years -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Nick.
And next, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefing senators behind closed doors today. One of those senators, up next.
[19:55:31] BURNETT: Tonight, the U.S. military sharing more details about the strikes in Syria with lawmakers. Senators were briefed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And joining me now, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. He was in that briefing, serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Senator, what did you learn?
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, what we learned is there is a basis for concern about the dangers of escalation, and potentially the risk to troops in the area. The strike --
BURNETT: U.S. troops who are in Syria?
BLUMENTHAL: United States troops who are there.
But just going by what has been disclosed publicly, not what we learned during the briefing, but there is clearly a need for a comprehensive, cohesive strategy here, because this missile strike cannot be effective unless there's a strategy for what's next, that's the question that's been asked constantly tonight and by my colleagues in the Senate. Where do we go from here? What are the dangers of escalation? And can Assad be held accountable by a president who's really done a 180-degree turn on Syria?
BURNETT: Right. Obviously, he was completely against, repeatedly, as we've shown on this program, striking obviously, he says, those images of children changed this for him. He went ahead and did it within 63 hours of the chemical attack itself.
Did he do the right thing? Do you support the strike itself?
BLUMENTHAL: The strike makes sense only if there's a comprehensive strategy, which has been lacking so far. And that's what is unknown at this point. That's what needs to be provided and it has to be accompanied by stronger steps against the Russians and Iranians who are the aiders and abetters here. Clearly, the Russians seem to have been complicit.
BURNETT: Were the Russians -- you do believe they were part of the chemical attack? The Pentagon is looking into that tonight.
BLUMENTHAL: I think there's mounting effort that the Russians were complicit in one way or another. That they knew about it. Russians at some level knew about it and they should be held accountable along with --
BURNETT: How do we do that, though, without military conflict?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, there are other steps that can be taken to make an impression on the Russians, including sanctions, forcing them to recognize their responsibility to the world through organizations like the U.N. and other means behind the scenes. But one way or the other, Russia is testing us around the world through violation of the INF treaty, involving cruise missiles. Other steps have been taken and are on going.
BURNETT: I want to show you two pictures. These are disturbing pictures obviously I'm going to show you. They are children. Children in agony after a sarin attack in Syria. The one on the left is a child, 2013, August, when Assad crossed the red line that President Obama had set. The one on the right is this Tuesday, sarin attack. Trump struck the Assad regime 63 hours later.
Do you regret that Obama didn't do something in 2013 so we never had to see that picture?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, Obama reached an agreement with the Russians, and the Russians failed to uphold their end of the agreement.
BURNETT: Well, we all have heard John Kerry. He said they got rid off the declared chemical weapons. Obviously, there were chemical weapons still in Syria, because they just used them this week.
BLUMENTHAL: What's unclear is when and where those chemical weapons originated, and that's part of what the Pentagon is now investigating, as it should. There is no basis to draw final conclusions here about the Russians or anyone else, but clearly, the Russians failed to uphold their end of the bargain. And remember, Erin, we provided every opportunity for the disposal of these weapons. We provided ships that were especially equipped to take --
BURNETT: But, ultimately, we trusted the Russians.
BLUMENTHAL: We trusted --
BURNETT: And ultimately, they didn't do it, right? I mean, isn't that the bottom line?
BLUMENTHAL: And that's a lesson here not only in Syria, but around the world.
BURNETT: But do you think there is something to it that Donald Trump took on President Putin, the man who may have -- is being investigated for colluding? He took on Putin this week.
BLUMENTHAL: Part of the reason why Assad felt free to use those chemical agents was that Rex Tillerson said that the future of Assad should be only up to the Syrian people. And Trump, Donald Trump, President Trump said when he was a candidate that he would focus elsewhere on ISIS. And in effect implicitly gave the green light.
BURNETT: All right. Senator Blumenthal, thank you very much for your time tonight. I appreciate it.
Thanks to all of you for joining us.
"AC360" with Anderson starts now.