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Senate GOP Goes "Nuclear"; Ends Gorsuch Filibuster; Source: Trump Considers Military Actions In Syria; Tillerson: "Steps Are Underway" Toward Forcing Assad Out; Trump To Ask China To Put Pressure On North Korea. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 17:00   ET


That's it for "THE LEAD," turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:05] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Trump's red line. President Trump says something should happen with regard to Syria's leader after the deadly chemical attack that killed dozens of people including children. The president calls it a disgrace to humanity. He's expected to meet tonight with his national security team; and a source says he is considering military action in Syria.

Stepping aside. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stems aside from the probe into Russia's election meddling after the Ethics Committee announces he's under investigation for improperly revealing classified information.

Filibuster showdown. Republicans change Senate rules to confirm a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, ending a Democratic filibuster. Does the so-called nuclear option, allowing a simple majority vote signal the end of any bipartisanship?

And high stakes summit. President Trump gets ready for a very critical summit with China's president amid reports of sharp infighting among his advisers. With chief strategist Steve Bannon demoted from his national security role, who has the president's ear?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We have multiple breaking news stories this hour. President Trump is weighing military action in Syria. A source says he's discussing possible options with Defense Secretary James Mattis. And officials say he's expected to meet tonight with his national security team. The president is not tipping his hand but calls the chemical attack in Syria one of the truly egregious crimes, saying something should happen with regard to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adds, quote, "It requires a serious response," suggesting steps are under way to force Assad from power.

And in a stunning move, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has stepped aside from the investigation into Russia's election meddling. Chairman Devin Nunes is facing ethics questions over his handling of classified information, which began with a secret visit to the White House grounds, criticized as an effort to defend President Trump's wiretapping claims.

President Trump is over at his Florida resort now. He'll meet next hour with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. Today, he repeated his campaign mantra that China has treated the United States unfairly on trade and indicates he'll press China hard to do something about North Korea's nuclear threat.

And Senate Republicans have made good on their threat to use the nuclear option, lowering the threshold of votes needed to break a filibuster. The historic move to change Senate rules clears the way for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch.

I'll talk to Republican Senator Tom Cotton of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

President Trump is over at his Florida resort right now. He's getting ready to meet next hour with China's leader. But much of the talk tonight is about Syria. Sources say the president is weighing military action, and urgent huddles are set with his national security team.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Sara Murray. Sara, what's the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. The president will be meeting with his national security advisers this evening in Mar-a-Lago, including Defense Secretary James Mattis as he weighs potential ways forward when it comes to Syria.

This comes as we are seeing a very different posture from the Trump administration on Syria and its president than we did just a few days ago.


MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight, President Trump adopting a sharply tougher tone on Syria.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what Assad did in Syria is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes.

MURRAY: After administration officials previously suggested the U.S. wouldn't push to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the aftermath of a horrific chemical attack on Syrian civilians may be changing hearts and minds. Today Trump suggested something should be done.

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. MURRAY: The president even privately telling some members of Congress

he's considering military action, though he hasn't yet committed to taking such a step.

Trump, sharing his evolving views on Syria with reporters aboard Air Force One, as he left behind a turbulent week in Washington and geared up for a potentially tense meeting with the Chinese president.

Trump welcoming President Xi Jinping to his Mar-a-Lago resort, where a top concern is sure to be North Korea's ballistic missile launch earlier this week. The president saying he expects China to bolster its efforts to reign in ally North Korea and its nuclear program, as the president previewed a busy agenda with the Chinese president.

[17:05:05] TRUMP: We're going to be talking about trade, North Korea and many other things.

MURRAY: It will be the first meeting between the leaders of the world's two largest economies, after Trump spent much of his time on the campaign trail hurling insults in China's direction.

TRUMP: China, which has been ripping us off, the greatest abuser in the history of this country...

MURRAY: Despite Trump's drum beat of criticism about China's trade policies, economic policy clearly taking a back seat as broader foreign policy concerns bombard Trump's young presidency. Just days ago, Trump delivering a familiar refrain, saying he's not interested in being president of the world.

TRUMP: I'm not and I don't want to be the president of the world. I'm the president of the United States, and from now on, it's going to be America first.

MURRAY: Then world events intervened. The horrors in Syria leaving world leaders looking to the United States to see what Trump would do next, and challenging the president to reconsider his world view.

TRUMP: I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly. I will tell you that. It is now my responsibility.

MURRAY: Meanwhile, back at the West Wing, a side show as tensions simmer among some of Trump's top aides. Steve Bannon's removal from the National Security Council bringing to the forefront tensions between Bannon and one of Trump's more moderate advisers, his son-in- law Jared Kushner.


MURRAY: Now, what you're really seeing in this White House right now is an ideological battle from some of Donald Trump's more conservative advisers and some of his more moderate, even liberal advisers. That's the kind of fight that's going to shape a number of policy decisions going forward on healthcare and tax reform, perhaps even foreign policy -- Wolf. BLITZER: Good point. All right, Sara. Thank you. Sara Murray over

at the White House. U.S. officials say the president will be meeting tonight with his

national security team to explore options, including the use of military force, against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, these options have actually, of course, been in existence for some time. The U.S. military has known for months how it would deal with the Assad regime if it was ordered to do so.

So there's basically two things on the table, our sources are telling us. A very limited strike against perhaps the air fields where those airplanes launched from that dropped those weapons with nerve agent in Syria, northern Syria, killing those people, those horrific pictures emerging. You could do a limited military option, but does that really change Assad's view? Does that change his behavior? Not very likely.

So the other option, would the president want to go full out for taking out all of Assad's delivery capability, his aircraft, his helicopters, artillery, rockets that can be filled with this type of agent, taking out the storage facilities, the manufacturing, the fabrication? You're talking then about a very extended campaign, about dozens of potential targets.

And one of the big "ifs" on the ground is where are the Russians. Russian military forces are on the ground in Syria. They are at Syrian military installations. If you're going to strike a broader set of targets, you're going to want to make sure you don't inadvertently strike Russians. No one is looking for a wider war here.

The White House apparently, though, is looking for a way to send some kind of message and potentially take some kind of broader action. Tonight, it all awaits a decision by the president, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a critically important decision indeed. All right, Barbara, thank you. Barbara is over at the Pentagon.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and Armed Services Committee. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: I want to begin with our top story. The president, as you now know, is considering military action in Syria after this week's horrendous chemical weapons attack on civilians, killing a lot of children in the process. What specific -- specific options should the president be weighing now? COTTON: Well, Wolf, I think the president ought to consider that kind

of military action. I strongly supported military action against Syria in 2013 when they violated Barack Obama's red line, using chemical weapons against their own people. The president decided against it, and we've seen what's happened since then. Dozens of chlorine gas attacks, the massacres in Aleppo last fall with Russian air power, and now another atrocity against their own people.

These are not just moral outrages. This is the exact kind of thing that drives Arab Muslims into the hands of the Islamic State and threaten the United States.

So in terms of military action, the president obviously will listen to his commanders. He'll have a wide range of options. Those options don't have to include trying to change the regime in Syria immediately or establish a constitutional democracy there. They could be something along the lines of what President Reagan did in 1986 in Libya after Muammar Gadhafi's terrorist forces in Germany bombed a popular nightclub where American service members frequented. We struck barracks; we struck air fields; we struck command and control centers. There's no lack of targets in Syria to teach Bashar al Assad that we're not going to tolerate the use of chemical weapons in the world today and that we're going to punish those who do.

BLITZER: The secretary of state, as you know, Senator Rex Tillerson, he says, in his words, steps are under way to remove Bashar al-Assad. That's a dramatic shift from what he just said a few days earlier when Tillerson and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, both suggested Assad's fate should be decided by the Syrian people. So what steps do you think he's referring to, the secretary of state?

COTTON: Wolf, it's been the stated policy for years of the United States government that Bashar al-Assad should leave power in Damascus. President Obama didn't actually implement that policy, but that was the stated policy.

That policy has not yet changed. I know the National Security Council is undertaking a deliberate review of that policy. There are many ways we can bring pressure to bear not only on Bashar al-Assad but on his patrons, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the ayatollahs in Tehran. But military action can be an option, as well, to demonstrate to those patrons and to demonstrate to Assad that U.S. patience has expired, and the U.S. is back in the fight in the Middle East.

BLITZER: I know the president has been making some phone calls to some key members of the House and Senate. Has he called you yet?

COTTON: I've not spoken with the president about it. I have consulted with some of his senior advisers, though. And of course, you don't want to take hasty or precipitate action. President Reagan, for instance, waited ten days in 1986 to ensure that the intelligence supported the conclusions that Libya was behind those bombings in Germany.

But I think consequences have to flow. The president recognized that in his statement from the Rose Garden yesterday, expressing the justified moral outrage but also refusing to reveal his hand about exactly what those consequences might be.

BLITZER: Listen to this, because during the campaign, not that long ago, then candidate Donald Trump strongly opposed using military action in Syria. I want you to listen to this little clip. This is what he told CNN's Erin Burnett in September of 2015.


TRUMP: Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we -- why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight, and let Russia -- they're in Syria already. Let them fight ISIS. Look, I don't want ISIS. I don't want ISIS. ISIS is bad; they're evil. When they start doing with the head chopping and drowning of every -- these are really bad dudes. So I don't want 'em. But let them fight it out. Let Russia take care of ISIS. How many -- how many places can we be?


BLITZER: So, Senator, do you believe the president fully appreciated the gravity of the situation in Syria before this week's chemical weapons attack?

COTTON: Well, I know that he appreciates the gravity, Wolf, now of the situation. Eighteen months is a long time on a battlefield. Many things have changed since the president said those things.

Russia surged forces into Syria. They helped stabilize the Assad regime. They committed atrocities in Aleppo late last year. The Turks now are worried about our alliance with Syrian Kurds.

So there's a lot of things that change on the battlefield. Changed circumstances sometimes lead to changed policy, even though the end goal remains the same, and that's the protection of the United States' national security interests. And again, with Assad in power committing these kind of atrocities, driving Syrians into the hands of extremist groups for their own protection, the United States cannot be safe from the threats emanating from Syria.

BLITZER: But you know that for the last several years, what, 400,000 civilians, Syrians have been killed in Syria in this brutal war, millions have been injured, millions more have been made homeless internally, externally. It's been going on for a long time, long before this chemical weapons attack this week.

I want to just refer to what the president, as a private citizen said back in 2013 in a tweet. He said, "The president" -- referring to President Obama -- "must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not."

Do you believe that President Trump now needs authorization for the use of military force from the House and Senate?

COTTON: Wolf, I don't think he needs it. It can often be useful, though, to express a united front, so I would encourage him at a minimum to consult with congressional leadership. If he feels that it would be helpful, he should come to Congress, but in his inherent authority and in the current authorizations to use military force, I believe the president has the legal justification he needs to protect U.S. interests.

BLITZER: If he -- if he asked you to vote for a formal authorization for the use of military force in Syria, would you vote for that legislation?

COTTON: I would, Wolf, assuming it is a traditional authorization for the use of force, not like what President Obama propose a few years back, which was really more of a limitation or a restriction on the use of force.

[17:15:07] Look, Ronald Reagan didn't need congressional approval in 1986 to take action against an immediate threat to the United States. Presidents don't need that kind of legal justification. It's inherent -- or I should say statutory justification. It's inherent in their constitutional powers. However, as a political matter and to the world, it's often better to show a united front.

BLITZER: All right, Senator, I want you to stand by. There's a lot more happening, very critically important issues. We're going to continue our conversation right after a quick break.


[17:20:08] BLITZER: We're talking with Senator Tom Cotton of the Intelligence Committee. We're going to get back to him in a moment.

But I want to update you on a stunning announcement today from the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, an announcement that he's stepping aside from the investigation into Russia's interference in America's democracy.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is with us right now for the very latest. Pretty surprising move. Update our viewers.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Especially when you consider that a little more than a week ago, Congressman Nunes had stated no plans to step away from steering the House investigation into Russia's attempt to intervene in the American election. Today, though, he changed his mind and became the second Trump ally to remove himself from the investigation.



NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight the man charged with leading a Capitol Hill investigation into Russia's meddling into the 2016 presidential election is forced to step down, at least temporarily.

NUNES: We're not going to talk about the investigation.

NOBLES: House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes announced he was stepping away because of a series of ethics complaints filed against him. The complaints accuse him of disclosing classified information following his secret meeting on White House grounds just over two weeks ago.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Chairman Nunes wants to make sure that this is not a distraction to a very important investigation, so he wants to go clear himself while this investigation continues on without any kinds of distractions.

NOBLES: In a statement, Nunes called the charges, quote, "entirely false and politically motivated." He handled over the investigation into Russian interference in the election to Texas Congressman Mike Conaway...


NOBLES: ... but vowed to stay on as committee chairman.

Still, the dramatic step down comes amid overwhelming criticism of Nunes' handling of the Russian probe and concerns he could not be impartial. Today the ranking Democrat on the committee thanked Nunes for recusing himself, something Nunes had resisted until today.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: I'm sure it was a very difficult decision for him, but as he mentioned, I think it is in the best interests of the investigation.

NOBLES: Nunes has been embroiled in controversy since he publicly claimed that he had seen intelligence indicating that President Trump's communications may have been incidentally collected by intelligence agencies conducting surveillance of foreign targets. After secretly seeing the purported surveillance on White House grounds with the help of White House staffers, he then publicly returned to the White House the next day to brief the president.

NUNES: This is information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to know.

NOBLES: The full committee, which was not privy to the same intelligence, will now be able to view the documents at the NSA's headquarters in Fort Mead, a move that the committee says will get it back on track.

SCHIFF: Now the materials that the chairman viewed at the White House that I subsequently viewed are now being made available to the full committee. I think that's a very positive step, as well.

NOBLES: This as some Democrats, despite Nunes' recusal, have renewed their calls for the investigation to be handled by an independent commission.


NOBLES: And consistently, House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that he supported the role that Nunes played in the Russia investigation. We're told last night the speaker and Nunes spoke about the situation, and Ryan agreed with Nunes' decision to step away and allow Congressman Conaway to take over.

Now, even though Nunes told the speaker of his plans last night, Wolf, he did not inform members of the House Intelligence Committee during a meeting that they had this morning.

BLITZER: A very surprising development indeed. Ryan Nobles, thanks very much for that report.

I want to bring back Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So in your view, Senator, did Chairman Nunes do anything wrong? Did he do the right thing by stepping down from this investigation?

COTTON: Wolf, to my knowledge, Devin did nothing wrong, but as he stated, he didn't want to be a distraction, given all of the allegations that some of these activist groups have filed with the Ethics Committee; so he stepped aside to let Mike Conaway continue the matter for the Republicans. Mike Conaway is a man of the highest integrity and character. I knew him well in my time in the House. I'm sure that he'll continue forward in the investigation.

And ultimately, no matter what's happened over the last two or three weeks over how these records were accessed or who saw them first, what's most important is what the records show. And the Senate Intelligence Committee, as part of our inquiry, will be reviewing these records if appropriate. We'll be calling in Susan Rice and others to testify, and we'll continue to work together in the bipartisan fashion we have so far as we investigate all of these allegations.

BLITZER: I want to get to Susan Rice in a moment, but it is pretty extraordinary for the House Ethics Committee to be investigating the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for maybe releasing classified information inappropriately. That's pretty extraordinary, isn't it?

COTTON: Well, any time an outside group files one of these complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics, Wolf, they move forward with an investigation. I've been the subject of those kind of partisan complaints before. They were dismissed unanimously.

Devin claims that he's done nothing wrong, and he simply didn't want to be a distraction to the investigation, which is very important. And I think the American people want us to focus on the substance of the matter and get to the bottom of it as quickly as we can and to make as much public as we can. And on the Senate Intelligence Committee, that's what we're focused on doing.

[17:25:14] BLITZER: You said yesterday that President Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice, in your words, was the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration, because she always seems to have gotten herself caught up in controversy, in this case the alleged unmasking of Trump associates contained in intelligence reports. Do you have any specific evidence, senator, that she did anything illegal or improper?

COTTON: Well, I mean, Wolf, she showed up in the middle of the Benghazi controversy, Bowe Bergdahl, the Syrian red line, and now this. But -- so she always had a tendency to turn up in the middle of Obama foreign policy controversies.

On this matter, no, there's no specific evidence yet. That's one reason why we are going to get ahold of these records and review them. And if there's nothing there, then we'll make those findings public, and we'll move forward.

If there's concern for illegality or inappropriate conduct, then we'll probably call Ms. Rice in to testify. You know, in her public statements so far there's been inconsistencies. That's why I think it's important that we continue together in a bipartisan fashion, as we have been, and get to the bottom of all of these things and we just let the facts lead us where they may, not only on this controversy but on some of the more wild-eyed conspiracy theories that people are claiming about collusion between Donald Trump's associates and Russian intelligence. It's important that we don't get ahead of ourselves on any of these matters, that we take a careful, deliberate approach and let the facts lead us where they may.

BLITZER: Which is excellent advice, Senator, except the president is not heeding your advice. In that interview yesterday with the "New York Times," he specifically said Susan Rice, he believes, committed a crime. He didn't provide any evidence, didn't cite any particular crime. He just says he believes she committed a crime.

Here's a question -- and you're a graduate of Harvard Law School -- was that an appropriate use, an appropriate statement at the presidential level, a presidential power for him to make a statement that he believes she committed a crime?

COTTON: Wolf, I've been recovering from law practice for 14 years now, so don't -- blame me for that. Look, the president knows, like we all know, that the only crime that we know occurred so far is the leaking of information to the media about potential intercepts. That shouldn't have been revealed. We don't know yet who did it, or at least I don't know who did it, and we should get to the bottom of it. And that's all caught up in this -- these claims of unmasking information.

BLITZER: Was it -- did he -- was it appropriate for the president, who's in charge of all of U.S. law enforcement, the Justice Department, was it appropriate for him to say he believes she committed a crime?

COTTON: Wolf, it is my impression that he said she may have. Maybe I'm mis -- I don't remember correctly.


BLITZER: Let me read -- I'll read you the quote, the specific quote. He said this. He said, "I think it's going to be the biggest story." He said, "It's such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time." He declined to say what evidence he has. He then said, "Do I" -- he was asked, do you think she committed a crime? He said this, quote, "Do I think? Yes, I think." That's the specific quote.

COTTON: Well, there's a difference between thinking and knowing. He might have stated it more artfully. But we do know that a crime was committed in the leaking of the information about General Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador. We don't know who did it, and the underlying reporting may have been perfectly lawful.

But in all of these allegations, Wolf, of all the claims of all parties going both ways, that's the one crime we know that's committed, and the president is right to be concerned about that.

BLITZER: But do you believe he's right to basically convict her?

COTTON: Well, Wolf, he expressed an opinion, not a conviction. Again, he's right to be concerned about it.

BLITZER: Is it-- let me rephrase the question. Is it appropriate for the president of the United States to express an opinion on such a sensitive matter involving the national security adviser of his predecessor?

COTTON: Well, it's probably best, usually, for the president to not express opinions about particular criminal matters or particular investigations.


COTTON: Again, he expressed an opinion, not a firmly held knowledge with evidence of a crime. That's one reason, though, we're going to get hold of the records and review them all, and if necessary, we'll call Ms. Rice in to testify; because we want to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and give the American people the confidence that our government, our intelligence agencies are properly handling classified information and protecting the civil liberties of the American people.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this other historic moment today, the use of the so-called nuclear option to push through President Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Are you concerned that doing away with the filibuster in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch, the judge, will ultimately lead to the end of the legislative filibuster, as well?

COTTON: I'm not, Wolf, because they're very different practices, very different traditions. For 214 years, there was never a partisan filibuster of any nominee, of any party for any office until 2003, when Chuck Schumer convinced Democrats to begin filibustering judges. After the day, we're back to where we were in 2003 after 214 years of tradition. In the time -- back in those days, it was an unwritten rule, today it's now a written rule. But sometimes unwritten rules are just as important as written ones, and that's because if you don't -- if you don't move forward with nominations, which you can't compromise on, you can't negotiate, you can only vote yes or no, then you don't have the offices of the government filled. So, I think there was a good reason why for 214 years, nominees always got an up or down vote, and after today we're back to where we always should have been and where we should have remained over the last 14 years.

BLITZER: Senator Cotton, thanks so much for joining us.

COTTON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still ahead, we're told President Trump will be meeting with his national security team after telling reporters something should happen because of the Syrian chemical attack. Stay with us.


[17:35:30] BLITZER: The breaking news, sources telling CNN, President Trump is now considering military action in Syria. This afternoon on Air Force One, the president told reporters something should happen because of this week's chemical attack. Let's bring in our experts. And Dana, you broke the story earlier today, what more can you tell us about the president's thinking right now, about the possibility of using military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That he personally is working the phone. He's calling members of Congress -- key members of Congress to say that this is now under his consideration and that at least one of the phone calls I'm aware of happened yesterday, the same day that he was in the Rose Garden saying that his thinking has changed, his attitude has changed, specifically, meaning that, of course, during the campaign. And not that long ago, I would say maybe three days ago, his approach to Syria was -- and pretty much everywhere else around the world -- no military action. And now that's different. And so, the message to Capitol Hill, and we saw him elaborate on that a little bit on Air Force One, is that he is seriously considering it. It's not a done deal. He definitely hasn't decided if, and if so, what. Meaning what kind of attack and what kind of operation it would be, but he's consulting with his defense secretaries.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, what kind of options do you think he'd be considering?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Boy, this is really fascinating, Wolf, because we talked about North Korea and Syria this week. The differences couldn't be stark. If you look at North Korea, very few options. The Chinese haven't been helpful, sanctions haven't worked and a military option to seems out of the question. Contrast that to Syria. You send in missiles -- American-strike missiles to military targets or presidential palaces, do you put U.S. aircraft in train to take out, for example, helicopters? There's a problem there, obviously, because the Syrians have pretty high in air defenses.

Secretary Tillerson said something fascinating today. He suggested that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, doesn't have a role in the future of Syria. Do you say that you want to take Assad out? Do you increase support for the Syrian opposition? This is the first real test for the presidential administration for President Trump, and I think the range of options he has is pretty darn broad. BLITZER: You know it's -- we've been covering Donald Trump for a long

time, as a candidate, even during the transition, Brianna, he was so reluctant to expand U.S. military power in the Middle East, but now, presumably because of these awful pictures of these little kids dying in this -- in this chemical weapons attack. He's coming around and coming to the conclusion maybe he does have to expand U.S. military force.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And for people who cover Syria in detail, it's puzzling to them because of some of what he has said. He said "You're now talking -- you're now talking about a whole different level," but you're not actually talking about a whole different level. As horrible as those pictures are, as we understand it, there have been dozens and dozens and dozens of chemical attacks. VX gas, Sarin, mustard gas, chlorine, this has been going on throughout the process. So, the question many people have is "Was this a rhetorical kind of nonsensical flourish? Does he lack basic rudimentary knowledge about what is going on in Syria? Is he actually proposing something specific? Mike Pence, the Vice President, has said every -- all options are on the table, but does Donald Trump really have something in mind? It's unclear.

BLITZER: Stand by, there's more coming up. We're also covering the breaking news up on Capitol Hill, where republicans made good on their threat to change the senate's rules, to assure Judge Neil Gorsuch will be the next U.S. Supreme Court justice.


[17:43:40] BLITZER: We're covering multiple breaking stories, including today's rule change by the U.S. Senate Republicans, a procedure known as the "nuclear option" to assure the confirmation of President Trump's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch. Let's get details from our Congressional Correspondent Phil Mattingly. Phil, this was a very bitter fight. Update our viewers.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. No shortage of finger-pointing accusations being thrown about, but also no shortage of regret, even among some republican senators who say they just wish it wouldn't have gotten to this point, but it did. Republicans made very clear, they were moving forward on the Supreme Court nominee.


MATTINGLY: Tonight, senate republicans have triggered the so-called "nuclear option".

MITCH MCCONNELL, UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM KENTUCKY: Therefore, I raise the point of order that the vote on cloture under the precedent set on November 21st, 2013 is a majority vote on all nominations.

MATTINGLY: Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, making a historic change to the senate rules to clear the path forward for President Trump's Supreme Court nominee. CHARLES SCHUMER, UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM NEW YORK: Today's vote is

a cautionary tale about how unbridled partisan escalation can ultimately overwhelm our basic inclination to work together.

MATTINGLY: Republicans repeatedly touting nominee Neil Gorsuch's qualifications and blaming anger at Trump for the democratic block aid.

[17:45:05] MCCONNELL: The opposition to this particular nominee is more about the man that nominated him and the party he represents than the nominee himself.

CHARLES GRASSLEY, UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM IOWA: You know that he'll be confirmed and you know in your hearts of heart that he deserves to be confirmed, and that's why this is especially sad state of affairs.

MATTINGLY: The change, that so-called "nuclear option", dropped the threshold to advance Gorsuch's nomination from 60 to just 51 votes, giving republicans who hold 52 seats in the chamber the ability to work with no democratic help.

SCHUMER: In a post-nuclear world, if the senate and the presidency are in these hands of the same party, there's no incentive to even speak to the senate minority. That's a recipe for more conflict and bad blood between the parties, not less.

MATTINGLY: The move marks a culmination or perhaps continuation of events set into motion over years of mistrust and partisanship. And it follows the 2013 democratic move that made the same change for lower court appointees.

HARRY REID, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR: It's time to change the senate before this institution becomes obsolete.

MATTINGLY: It was done then to overcome GOP blockades of many of President Obama's nominees and drew this starkly prescient warning from then-Minority Leader, McConnell.

MCCONNELL: Outside of the aisle, you'll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.

MATTINGLY: McConnell now escalating deeply embedded partisan tensions himself with a move even some republican colleagues are criticizing.

JOHN MCCAIN, UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM ARIZONA: I find myself torn between protecting the traditions and practices of the senate and the importance of having a full complement of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

MATTINGLY: Even as they all voted in favor.


MATTINGLY: Making clear that by week's end Mr. Trump's first pick for the highest court in the land will be confirmed. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, that final vote, all that's really left -- and it's not really up in the air anymore -- should come tomorrow evening. The final swearing in should come on Monday. It's worth noting if this rules change does not apply to legislation. That will still require democrats to come on board with republicans to be able to move forward, but a lot of the concern you hear right now from members of both parties is the slippery slope argument, that perhaps legislation is next, perhaps the senate has headed the way of the house. Now, I will tell you I've spoken to a number of senators and top senate aides over the course of the last couple days and they say there is work to prevent that happening. The question is will that work actually turn into anything. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Phil, thank you. Phil Mattingly on the Hill. Coming up, are there any good options to rein in Kim Jong-un before the North Korean leader sparks a nuclear crisis?


[17:52:23] BLITZER: President Trump meets next hour with China's President, Xi Jinping, and the start of a critical summit at Mar-a- Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. He'll press the Chinese leader on trade, also, trying to get China to put pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. Brian Todd has been looking into this for us. Brian, lots at stake tonight.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lots at stake, Wolf. Nothing less than the stability of the Korean Peninsula. Just a short time ago on Air Force One, President Trump told reporters he thinks China, quote, "will be stepping up on North Korea," but he's looking across the table tonight at a Chinese President who likely does not want to pressure Kim Jong-un. And there are serious questions about whether these two leaders can really diffuse this crisis.


TODD: From his bunkers in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un tonight is posing an enormous challenge to two of the world's most powerful leaders. Kim's aggressive hell or high water pursuit of nuclear weapons and long- range missiles is a pivotal topic as President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping looks across the table at each other.

JAMIE METZL, FORMER NSC OFFICIAL: The North Korea threat is growing by the day and President Trump and President Xi under great pressure to do something.

TODD: What will President Trump say to President Xi to get China to put more pressure on Kim Jong-un to scale back his weapons program? A senior White House official says they'll try to get China to exert its massive economic leverage over North Korea. But analysts say Mr. Trump could also threaten to impose so-called "secondary sanctions" on China if they don't do more to pressure Kim.

VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES SENIOR ADVISER: Secondary sanctions are essentially the use of United States sanctions directly against Chinese companies that are doing business with North Korea.

TODD: We press the White House on whether the president would threaten secondary sanctions on China. They've not responded. Another option is talking directly to Kim, a move democratic senator Ed Markey is pushing the Trump administration to consider.

EDWARD MARKEY, UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM MASSACHUSETTS: The United States must do something that the Chinese want us to do which is to engage in direct negotiations with Kim.

TODD: And in return, Markey says, China would tighten the economics crews on North Korea if Kim doesn't negotiate in good faith. No response from the White House to that idea.

CHA: If that negotiation fails, there is nowhere else to go. And that's a very dangerous place to put any president.

TODD: One of President Trump's toughest challenges, getting any movement from a Chinese Leader, who many experts say, doesn't really want to do anything about North Korea.

METZL: The President Xi has no real incentive to take major steps on North Korea because China believes it's better off with even a nuclear-armed and hostile North Korea on its border than with a reunified Korean Peninsula allied to the United States.

[17:55:04] TODD: President Trump could try to get Xi to speak directly to Kim Jong-un but those two leaders still haven't met. And analysts say that Chinese don't much like the young dictator next door.

GARY LOCKE, FORMER UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: He's not as cooperative and as communicative as his father or grandfather, and so this guy is unpredictable. He's brash. He's, in essence, irrational and quite a big ego.


TODD: Most analysts don't believe President Trump and President Xi will emerge from these meetings with any kind of a breakthrough solution to get Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear program. Maybe, they say, they might be able to agree to some kind of a game plan to put more pressure on Kim. As one analyst says, North Korea is still the land of lousy options. Wolf?

BLITZER: It certainly is. Brian Todd, reporting. Thank you. We'll have much more on the breaking news right after this.