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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Tennessee Senator Bob Corker; Inside Syria. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 9, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:03]

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At that hospital, body bags are already piling up on the sidewalk from the attack. The dead are brought out to make room for the living.

The tiniest victims are carried in gingerly, one by one by one. Inside, medical staff struggle to cope with a flood of patients and only a limited supply of the lifesaving antidote atropine. Most are treated hastily on the floor, as distraught relatives look on, powerless to help.

The youngest victims are the most vulnerable. After a quick check that the heart is still beating, the doctor moves on to the next case.

Those who did not survive are taken to be buried before the end of the day, in keeping with Islamic tradition. In all, 92 people were killed in Khan Shaykhun, among them, 33 children. Entire families were laid in a single grave.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Pray to God. They are in heaven. You must accept God's will. To God we belong and to him we shall return.

WARD: Kusail Yusuf (ph) lost more than 20 members of his family.

"This is the grave of my cousin Yasser (ph). He is my friend and brother. His son Amer (ph) just 4 years old, what did he do to deserve this? His second child, Mohammed, may God have mercy on his soul," he says.

"And this is my brother Moham (ph)'s grave. Abu Yousef (ph), Abu Yousef, I am your brother. Abu Yousef, you left me all alone. May God protect you, my brother and accept you as a martyr. Abu Yousef. Please, God, answer me."

In Syria now, the dead are considered lucky, free from the unspeakable crimes of this brutal war and the agony of grief.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WARD: American, British and French intelligence, as well as chemical weapons experts who we have spoken with all agree that this attack was certainly carried out by President Assad's forces. Samples taken from the scene have shown that the nerve agent was

likely sarin gas, which, of course, has been outlawed since the end of the First World War. And, Jake, when President Assad was asked in an interview shortly after the attack what his thoughts were about it, he denied that it had ever even taken place, calling it will 100 percent a fabrication.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Clarissa Ward, thanks so much for that incredible reporting. Stick around.

I want to bring in my panel.

We have with us Jen Psaki, former communications director for the Obama White House. Robin Wright, she's a joint fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, and also Mike Rogers, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Clarissa, I want to start with you.

You spend a lot of time in Syria. What do you hear from Syrians in the wake of not only this attack, but the U.S. strike against the Assad regime in response?

WARD: Well, Jake, I think that for people who live in opposition-held areas like the town of Khan Shaykhun, there was a kind of moment of optimism or excitement even when President Trump took the decision to strike the Shayrat air base, which of course was where the air base where the attack on Khan Shaykhun was launched from.

At the same time, I think people have two real questions. Number one question is, what does this mean for the future? What is the Syria policy going to look like in more of a long-term way?

The U.S. may have shown that it has some leverage now at the negotiating table, but what does it actually go ahead and do with the leverage?

The second question that I hear over and over again from Syrians is, OK, why is it OK to kill us by the thousands with chemical weapons -- or -- sorry -- rather, why is it not OK to kill us by the thousands with chemical weapons, but it is OK to kill us by the hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons?

So the aerial bombardment across the board is a source of serious concern for them, Jake.

[16:35:00]

TAPPER: And, Jen Psaki, let me start with you here in studio, just because obviously there's a sense of deja vu.

We looked at pictures like this after the 2013 chemical weapons attack of Assad on the suburbs of Damascus, where more -- even more people were killed. What's it like being with a president? Obviously, he's been very criticized about not taking -- making a strike. I don't want to relitigate that right now, but what is it like to be in the Oval Office with the president as you watch these images and try to decide what to do?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I was working for Secretary Kerry at the time.

TAPPER: OK.

PSAKI: And I have to say that the gut-wrenching feeling that we're all feeling right now watching this video is exactly how we felt, how President Obama felt, how Secretary Kerry felt, how virtually every person working on this policy.

I'm certain that's the case today as well. That's not a partisan thing. That's a human reaction. The challenge is that there are not a lot of great solutions. And at the time, obviously, we wanted to take military action. We didn't get the support of Congress. We thought the right step was to get those chemical weapons removed, so that people didn't have access like ISIL.

But right now, we're still in the same place where we don't know how to move forward, and that's the challenge that the administration will have to address.

TAPPER: And, Congressman, the Trump administration responded with 60 Tomahawk missiles. I think 59 hit their targets, but since then, nothing. What is it enough of a deterrent? Did it really at the end of the day do anything?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it did.

And I, in 2013, did all the forensic review from the committee's perspective on the 2013 attacks, and it's horrific, and it does give you that same feeling. You see those pictures for the first time.

The missile strike, I did think, redrew some boundaries in the battle, and I think it was an important event to do. They just announced they are going to arm the Kurds today. That would be a second large step, especially from pushing ISIS out of Raqqa. So it sounds to me like they are piecemealing a plan together.

Is there problems with it? Probably, in the sense that we have got to keep the Turks in this fight, too, so they have got some problems to get over. I do think, though, that missile strike was important. It was pretty swift. It was pretty quick and it did target the site where we knew that those chemical weapons were stored and distributed.

TAPPER: Robin, do you agree?

ROBIN WRIGHT, SENIOR FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Well, I think it was more a symbolic act to say we're not going to accept this, the same kind of thing that President Obama considered.

At the end of the day, the administration has to make a very tough call very soon, and that is, does it want to engage in Syria's civil war? So far, we have focused on one aspect of the many wars playing out in Syria.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, the secretary of state will meet with the Russian foreign minister to talk about Syria at the top of their agenda, to figure out, is there a way to figure out a peaceful solution, a negotiated outcome to this grisly six-year war?

But then the president makes his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and this is a country that wants to see the Assad regime out, wants to see regime change. It's unacceptable for Assad to stay.

And so the challenges today in many ways are even tougher than during the Obama administration, particularly in the aftermath of this kind of horrific attack.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to talk more about it.

Coming up, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will join us to weigh in on what might be next for Assad. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:30]

TAPPER: Welcome back. We're sticking with our world lead, CNN's exclusive, newly obtained video of the chemical attack in Syria last month that shows the graphic aftermath of that atrocity that killed at least 92 innocent people.

We're not going to show you any more. So if you're sitting there with your kids, it's safe to watch TV. We're just going to talk about what we saw.

With me is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee.

What was your reaction?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I imagine, like every American, horror.

This barbaric leader has been doing it for years. He did it in 2013. We didn't respond. There was no authorization needed, just like President Trump did not need an authorization, and -- and it didn't happen, and we have seen him torture his people.

I know Caesar (ph), who has documented that. This is something that, you know, I certainly thank Senator -- I thanked President Trump for responding in the way that he did. But it continues. He's supported by Russia. He's supported by Iran.

He needs to be put away in a tribunal and locked up for life, and, hopefully -- I know this has captured the imagination, I hate to say, of the world, that is able to view this, but this is what we have been seeing for years, and we visit people in refugee camps. We know this is under way. America has stood by, as has the rest of the world, and let this occur

and, as I agree, there's no easy answers, but Russia has a window of opportunity here, Jake. I know that Secretary Tillerson is meeting with them now. They have a window of opportunity to join the international community, the civilized world, and push back against what Assad is doing.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But you know their response. Their response is that -- I mean, you know, Assad called this a fabrication, even though we saw the evidence of it just now.

The Russians are part of the apparatus that says this isn't true or this was committed by the U.S. I mean, they just put out lies, fake news, and...

CORKER: Yes.

The fact is, we know, and they know we know. And Lavrov and Putin understand very much what has happened here. We can probably go further in our accusations really as it relates to Russia, if we so chose to.

So, what we have now is a situation where Russia has a window of opportunity. I know that Tillerson, as I mentioned, is exploring that right now. And do they want to stay aligned with this barbaric ruler who is torturing his people in prisons, cutting their genitals off? Is that who they want to stand with, or do they want to join the rest of the world and lessen -- do away with the support that they have for this person, get Iran to join them and let's move away from what's happening?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: I know have you a vote, so you have to run, so I just have one for question for you, if you would. And that is, President Trump, he did do that air strike. A lot of people were very happy about it, including a lot of people who were in the Obama administration, but just a few days after that air strike the airfield was operating again.

CORKER: Yes.

TAPPER: Assad continues his barbarism. He's still killing innocent people every day.

CORKER: Yes.

TAPPER: We're told now that the U.S. is going to start arming the Kurds. What more needs to be done? Obviously you don't support a full-scale ground invasion of the U.S., but what else needs to be done to stop this?

CORKER: Yes. Well, of course, the Kurds issue is against ISIS. It's like we have two battle fronts that are taking place. It's a -- it's a whole different effort in many ways. But back in 2013 there was a ten-hour operation planned, and we hit one of the airports the other day. We could hit another seven. That's what was planned at the time, and what I wished would have happened at the time. I wrote the authorization for the use of force. It never came to a vote in the House or Senate and the President had the that authority and I thanked the members of the administration, the former administration, that had supported Trump, but there's more that can be done. There's more that can be done, and we could basically ground much of the air force that operates out of there. So again, I'm not advocating that today. Again, there's a window. Let's see what Russia does. If Russia wants to continue to be a party to what's happening here, they are in essence by supporting him, they are to blame for what is happening to these people, so if this is where they want to be, we'll get a clear understanding of that soon and then the administration can plan out additional steps, if necessary.

TAPPER: Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it coming in for this important -- this important study -- this important show. Thanks so much.

We have lots more to talk about. Our panel will respond to Senator Bob Corker when we come back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with our world lead. We've been looking at rather disturbing graphic video newly obtained by CNN showing last month's chemical weapons attack in Syria which we're told was by the Assad regime. Nearly 100 innocent people were killed, including young children. Again, we're not going to be showing you any more of that footage but we're going to talk about it with our panel. Clarissa, let me start with you. Obviously the Syrian government did not abide by the agreement that was negotiated during the Obama administration to get rid of their chemical weapons stockpile. This is Sarin gas in the video we just showed. Is the there evidence that the Syrians are in possession of more chemical weapons than even that?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is what's really alarming, Jake, because if you talk to chemical weapons experts and some intelligence officials, they will tell you that there is reason to believe that there are multiple facilities inside Syria, in regime held areas, that are still being used to make chemical weapons. And Sarin gas, for example, actually has a relatively short shelf life. So if it had just been leftover stockpiles, the Sarin would not have been potent. That leads many to extrapolate that they are continuing to produce these chemical weapons. And that, of course, is a grave concern, not just to the Syrian people but to the entire international community, Jake.

TAPPER: And Jen, let me go to you. You were working for Secretary of State John Kerry at the time, and it was no secret that Kerry wanted there to be a response to the chemical weapons attack. Senator Corker, Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, obviously still frustrated by the decision of the President to not conduct a military strike against Assad. How frustrating was it for Secretary Kerry? JEN PSAKI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think Secretary Kerry was somebody who was traveling around the world and hearing from a lot of partners and allies around the world who really wanted the United States to act and really felt this emotionally raw response to what they had seen Assad do in 2013. Now, Secretary Kerry felt strongly at the time about moving forward, but he also came around to the reality that there wasn't a good next step. And what President Obama often asked was what then? What next? How will we -- how will we end this? Right now obviously arming the Kurds is something that President Obama supported. Many people in the administration supported. I think there will be widespread support for that here, never mind Turkey. But the question is what's the diplomatic plan here? How are we changing Assad's calculus? We didn't successfully do that. That's a challenge for this administration now and we'll see what they do.

TAPPER: And Chairman Rogers, let me ask you. What now? Let me just ask the Obama question of people who support what President Trump did in his military strike which was widely supported by the American people and according to polls. What now? What else needs to happen?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, I do think that there's a unique opportunity to put a little pressure on the Russians, and this video needs to be shown everywhere where it hurts them as well. They are complicit in this attack. It was at a facility of which they had advisers and military aircraft.

Tapper: The air base.

ROGERS: The air base, so there is no way that you do this kind of an operation without a bright red light shining on it for what the Russians would be able to see at this post. So what now? The next step. They try to do this again. Again, there's many of us who called for this early on in 2013 and had this conversation with secretary Kerry at the time. There are things we could have done, including making it difficult for any aircraft to get off the ground. That would be hugely significant. We have the capability to do that today. Is it a little risky because you have Russians there? Absolutely. That's why I think this diplomatic meeting between the U.S. Secretary of State and Russians is so important. You -- now that you've armed up the Kurds, you leverage up our special forces capabilities to make sure that ISIS isn't a factor and you start tightening the noose and you get our Arab league partners fully engaged in a way that they want to be engaged and I think you've got at solution to the problem.

TAPPER: And Robin, quickly, if you could. Where are our Arab league partners? Why aren't they doing anything?

[16:55:16] ROBIN WRIGHT, U.S. INSTITUTE OF PEACE AND WOODROW WILSON CENTER JOINT FELLOW: Well, they are very divide. That's -- some of them want Assad out and others are willing to kind of see some kind of transition. So it's getting the Arabs to speak with one voice has always been a difficult, whether it's the Arab-Israeli peace process or whether it's dealing with the crises in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. So that's one of the big steps. Militarily there are some options whether it's attacking the air -- the ground control for their air power, but then the big question is who is the alternative when it comes to that political process?

TAPPER: Yes, that's the difficult question.

Clarissa, Robin, Jen, Congressman Rogers, thanks one and all for being here. Former Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta is coming up next. Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)