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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; Will Trump Send Troops to Syria?; Republicans Go Nuclear on Supreme Court Pick; Republican Chairman Steps Down From Russia Investigation; Clinton Talks About Defeat in First Interview Since Election; Unseen Enemy: Growing Global Threat of Disease Pandemic. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 6, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Striking back?
After a gruesome chemical weapons attack, sources tell CNN President Trump is now considering military action in Syria. Will he directly take on the strongman Bashar al-Assad?
Under investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman is off of the Trump-Russia probe, as the Ethics Committee launches an official inquiry into his handling of classified information. We are going to tell you what we're learning about Devin Nunes' surprise decision to step aside.
Senate showdown. Republicans made good on their threat and pulled the so-called nuclear trigger, changing the rules to guarantee the president's Supreme Court nominee is confirmed. Will the GOP come to regret this historic move?
And Clinton speaks out. Tonight, Hillary Clinton's talking publicly about the impact of Russia's election meddling, calling the hacking of Democrats a more effective theft than Watergate. We're just getting in portions of her first interview since losing to President Trump.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following a lot of breaking news this hour, including the new threat of U.S. military retaliation for Syria's chemical weapons attack.
CNN has learned that President Trump is privately telling members of Congress that he's considering military action. And in public, Mr. Trump just told reporters that something should happen to punish the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also ramping up the pressure on Assad.
Tonight, Tillerson appears to be opening the door to regime change in a reversal of the message the Trump administration was sending before the gas attack. Right now, the president is in Florida for his high- stakes summit with the leader of China. We're told Mr. Trump is planning to meet with his national security team later tonight and Defense Secretary James Mattis will brief him on various Syria military options.
We expect to see Mr. Trump in Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach later this hour. We're standing by for that.
Also breaking, the embattled House intelligence chairman, Devin Nunes, steps aside from his committee's Russia probe because he is under investigation. The House Ethics Committee now looking into whether Nunes mishandled classified information.
And Senate Republicans have taken drastic and historic action to clear the way for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. The GOP deploying the so-called nuclear option, lowering the number of votes needed to break a filibuster.
Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they are all standing by, as we bring you full coverage of all the breaking stories.
First, let's go to our CNN White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's with the president in Palm Beach, Florida.
Jeff, you were on Air Force One when the president spoke about Bashar al-Assad's future just a little while ago.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I was.
And the president spoke in his most direct terms yet about Bashar al- Assad. He called the chemical attack there a truly egregious crime, but when pressed by reporters as he visited with us for just a few minutes, Wolf, he declined to say whether Assad should leave power.
When he was asked that directly, he said this. He said: "I think what Assad did was terrible." But then asked again before he went out to the front of Air Force One, he said something should happen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?
TRUMP: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there, and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: But, Wolf, the president did not elaborate on what that something should be.
Now, of course, yesterday, we saw him in the Rose Garden at the White House saying he does believe that Syria crossed several lines here, so the president clearly making his case and alluding to members of Congress and others that they are at least considering military strikes. But, Wolf, the options are somewhat limited in that regard. He is
meeting with his national security team shortly, and he will be speaking as well or will see him coming up at Mar-a-Lago later this hour, Wolf.
But yet they are still considering all these options. He has, of course, been opposed to removing Assad from power before, but now after seeing those gruesome, grisly photographs, he said that changed him. We will see what action it leads him to -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. He says, like so many millions of people around the world, he saw those bodies of those young kids, those children, and that clearly had an important impact on him.
Jeff Zeleny in Palm Beach, we will get back to you.
We're learning more about the military options being considered by President Trump right now.
Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, what are you hearing from your sources?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we are hearing is, this will be the full weight of being commander in chief. This is the decision on the table tonight when he meets with his national security team, a go or no go.
You will remember President Obama for a number of reasons did not engage in military strikes against the Assad regime. Now, tonight, that is a question for this president.
STARR (voice-over): A grieving father cradling his dead children, as the death toll rises, more bodies recovered, 86 murdered, including 26 children. Tonight, the Trump administration is considering airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad's regime in direct retaliation for bombing with nerve agent here in Northern Syria's Idlib province.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack which violates all previous U.N. resolutions, violates international norms and long- held agreements between parties, including the Syrian regime, the Russian government, and all other members of the U.N. Security Council. It is a serious matter. It requires a serious response.
STARR: Radar tracks show regime planes were in the air at the time of the attack. Heat signatures showed those planes dropped bombs on areas where civilians suffered exposure to nerve agents.
Military commanders have longstanding options for attacking Assad. President Trump could authorize a limited strike, hitting airfields where the attacking aircraft launched. But Assad can still use artillery and rocket shells filled with deadly agent and barrel bombs thrown out of helicopters.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They can be reconstructed anywhere. It is not like there's a factory where these are being produced. So, you may send a signal, but it isn't going to likely affect their capability of continuing to do these kind of things to the civilian environment of Syria.
STARR: The U.S. military has warships and aircraft in the area ready to go. In the Mediterranean, U.S. Navy warships, the USS Ross and USS Porter, could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. The U.S. could also fly stealth aircraft, B-2 bombers, with relative safety to strike targets.
President Trump says his opposition to going into Syria has changed.
But there are political limitations. The U.S. military warns it can't guarantee where Russian forces may be located.
HERTLING: I think there would have to be coordination with the Russian military as well, because they're going to see us entering what they now consider their airspace, bombing their ally as part of a retaliatory strike. I don't think that's going to go very well.
STARR: The challenge for the president as he looks at these options at Mar-a-Lago tonight is this in part. What would it take to convince Bashar al-Assad to change his behavior and not attack and kill his own people, Wolf?
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.
Now to the surprise shakeup in the Trump-Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stepping aside from his committee's probe now that he, he is under investigation by the Ethics Committee.
Our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju, is joining us from Capitol Hill.
Manu, Nunes repeatedly rejected calls to recuse himself until now. Tell us the latest.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about that, Wolf. I had asked Mr. Nunes repeatedly over the last week would he step aside amid those growing calls for him to recuse himself, but the revelation today that the House Ethics Committee is investigating whether he mishandled classified intelligence was the latest in a string of controversies that became too difficult for Nunes to overcome.
RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, the embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee forced to step aside from leading the investigation into Russia amid growing accusations that he had grown too close to the White House. Already under siege, Congressman Devin Nunes facing a new problem, a
House Ethics investigation into whether he improperly disclosed classified information about top-secret intelligence with comments like this:
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: This is information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to know about incidental collection where the president himself and others in the Trump transition team were clearly put into intelligence reports that ended up at this White House and across a whole bunch of other agencies.
RAJU: Democrats have accused Nunes of coordinating with the White House, a charge he's denied.
Leaving the Capitol Thursday, Nunes refused to answer any questions, but he released a statement blaming left-wing groups for making false and politically motivated accusations. Still , he said it was in the best interest to let Congressman Mike Conaway lead the committee's investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign.
The news stunned members of the Intelligence Committee, who only learned of the decision after staff handed them Nunes' statement once he abruptly left a closed-door meeting.
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: We were all caught a little bit off- guard. I think now the investigation can proceed.
RAJU: It marked a dramatic shift from a week ago, when Nunes defiantly rejected calls to step aside amid his decision to cancel a public hearing that could've provided more information on Russia's alleged coordination with Trump associates.
(on camera): Are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, why would I not? You guys need to go ask them why these things are being said.
RAJU: Well, they're saying that it cannot run with you as chair.
NUNES: You got to go talk to them. That sounds like their problem.
RAJU (voice-over): House Speaker Paul Ryan privately met with Nunes last night and said he supports the chairman's decision.
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.
RAJU: But neither Ryan or his aides would say if the speaker urged Nunes to step aside.
(on camera): Did you urge Nunes to step aside? Did you urge him to? (voice-over): Nunes had grown weary as his explanation shifted on whether the White House had given him intelligence so he could provide cover to President Trump's unsubstantiated charge that former President Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped. On Tuesday:
(on camera): Can you just stop for a second and answer -- take one quick second?
NUNES: No. No.
RAJU: And on Wednesday.
NUNES: We're not going to talk about anything to do with this investigation.
RAJU: Now, Wolf, another question tonight is whether Mr. Nunes would get any of that top-secret intelligence information that is reserved for the so-called Gang of Eight, which are the top-most leaders of Congress who get that secret intelligence information, whether he'd get that information related to the issue of the Russia investigation.
And now at the same time, Wolf, some intelligence sources are telling CNN that they have concerns with sharing some information with Mr. Nunes because there are concerns he may have revealed some of the information publicly, as he did when he talked about that surveillance information that he later briefed the president on the United States on.
So, Wolf, we will see if this investigation gets back on track after weeks of turmoil -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.
We're joined now by Republican Senator Jeff Flake. He's on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Judiciary Committee.
And, Senator, we just got some video in. I want to show it to our viewers. This is just moments ago.
Let's watch it and listen, the president receiving the president of China, President Trump and President Xi Jinping over at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.
Do you think, Senator, that President Trump is going to be able to convince the Chinese leader to really start squeezing North Korea on this nuclear threat, this ballistic missile threat and get something done?
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I sure hope so. The North Koreans keep provoking, and it seems to be at an accelerated pace.
So, these are important discussions. I'm glad the president is having them. And I hope he has some effect. The Chinese obviously are the ones with influence over the North Koreans, so this is important.
BLITZER: But as far as all options on the table as far as North Korea is concerned, the military option, it's not a very good option, is it?
FLAKE: It's not. It's not. But it has to be on the table. We have to assume that if we don't get China's involvement that we may have to take other means.
And I think, obviously, we all believe that having North Korea with the capability to reach our allies and our shores is not acceptable.
BLITZER: Speaking of military options, you heard the president, President Trump, say something should happen as far as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is concerned because of the chemical weapons attack.
BLITZER: Should the president go a step further and immediately call for Bashar al-Assad to go?
FLAKE: It is tough to imagine how in the world you could have Bashar al-Assad rule the Syrian people after what he's done to them. So it's just unimaginable. If anybody could contemplate it before, they certainly can't now.
So whether he says that or not, I think we have to start taking measures that assume that he will not be there.
BLITZER: Because, just a few days ago, Secretary of State Tillerson said that Bashar al-Assad's -- quote -- "will be decided by the Syrian people."
On the same day, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said "Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out."
Are you surprised to all of a sudden see a very dramatic shift in statements from them as well as from the president?
FLAKE: Well, it has been a shift by the president, certainly. He has said as much. He said that his thinking is very much different today than it was just a week ago.
So, yes, there has been a shift, and I think it will necessitate another strategy. Obviously, it will be ultimately the Syrian people that decide, but they can be helped, and I think that you will see that help provided.
BLITZER: So he's told members of Congress, I don't know if he's spoken to you, Senator, but he has told various members that he's considering now a military response to Tuesday's sarin gas attack killing so many civilians and so many children.
Do you support military strikes on various Syrian regime targets?
FLAKE: I do. I do.
And I wish that we would've when we drew that red line years ago. I wish we would've enforced it. I think one of the big mistakes that was made was not enforcing that red line. And when the president came to Congress to ask for permission, when he had all the authority to move ahead under war powers and inform us 60 days later, when you draw red line like that, you enforce it.
And I hope that we move now to ensure that the people know that we cannot countenance this kind of activity. Anybody who has watched those videos of those kids after that attack, they know that we have to act.
BLITZER: The president, President Trump, said earlier he hasn't yet spoken to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, about the chemical attack or Putin's support of Bashar al-Assad.
Will you encourage President Trump to hold Russia accountable because of his very strong support for the Bashar al-Assad regime?
FLAKE: You bet.
The initial reaction of Russia obviously to blame it on the Syrian rebels and to say that these were actors or whatever else just follows a pattern that we're seeing increasingly out of the Russians. And this will be a real test of the Trump administration to see if they're willing to stand up and stand up to the Russians and tell them, you know, here's what's happening in Syria, you know it, we know it, it's time for you to take a responsible position.
BLITZER: What's your reaction, Senator, to the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, deciding to step aside from the Russia meddling in the U.S. presidential election investigation?
FLAKE: We have to have an independent look at this, and I think everyone knew that, given some of the activities before, this would not be viewed as an independent investigation.
So I was glad to see the action that happened today or yesterday. And I support that, and I think that we can all feel more confident now in the investigation going forward.
BLITZER: Do you believe the chairman, Devin Nunes, did something wrong?
FLAKE: I believe that certainly he lost the trust of those of us on Capitol Hill who have been calling for our standing committees to move forward and have resisted calls for an outside commission. Those take too long, they cost too much, and they become partisan vehicles typically.
But if our standing committees like the House Intelligence Committee is going to move forward, people have to have confidence, not just the people in the country, but people in Congress. And I think that confidence was lacking.
BLITZER: He says he recused himself from this Russian meddling investigation because he's now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee supposedly for revealing classified information.
I don't know if you listened to everything he said, but in the course of those words that he uttered publicly, do you believe he revealed classified information?
FLAKE: I don't know. I think that that would come out in an investigation moving forward. I'm just glad to see that he acted responsibly and took the position that he did yesterday and stepped aside.
BLITZER: Senator, we have more to discuss. There's more breaking news. I need to take a quick break. We will be right back.
BLITZER: We're back with Republican Senator Jeff Flake. He cast one of the pivotal votes today to deploy the so-called nuclear option.
Senator, I want you to stand by, because I first want to get a full report on this historic move in the U.S. Senate today to end the filibuster of the president's Supreme Court nominee.
Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is up on Capitol Hill.
Sunlen, this certainly clears the way for the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, but it will have ramifications well beyond that.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly does, Wolf.
It has some serious implications, not only for the way that the Senate conducts their business and how they potentially forge bipartisan compromise going forward, but also for Donald Trump's Washington going forward.
SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, the Senate forcing a monumental rule change, clearing the way for Donald Trump's nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice.
A series of arcane procedural moves leaves behind an indelible new precedent.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I raise a point of order that the vote on cloture under the precedent set on November 21, 2013, is a majority vote on all nominations.
SERFATY: Now with the so-called nuclear option, only a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to approve a Supreme Court nominee, lowering the bar from 60 votes.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: The responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans and Leader McConnell's shoulders.
SERFATY: Both sides now blaming the other.
MCCONNELL: The opposition to this particular nominee is more about the man that nominated him and the party he represents than the nominee himself.
SERFATY: The implications on Capitol Hill go beyond just battles over Supreme Court nominees. The longstanding Senate rule that was broken today chips away at one of the hallmarks of Senate tradition.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: A very sad day for the Senate.
SERFATY: Procedure that was set up to intentionally forge bipartisan compromise.
MCCAIN: We have now destroyed 200 years of tradition of requiring 60 votes, which meaning that you have to have bipartisan approach to these issues and these appointments, and I think we're on a slippery slope.
SERFATY: Sparking new concern that the Senate could become more polarized without the explicit need to work together.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: It's a lot more partisan. And it's unfortunate. The Senate should be different. The Senate should not be the House with a six-year term.
SERFATY: Some arguing that deterioration started years ago.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Well, I think we have already slid down the slope. Harry Reid decided that executive nominations would be done by simple majority and we just simply went with the Harry Reid rule today. I don't see it as any different than what Harry Reid put forward.
SERFATY: And fresh concern that Republicans eager to get President Trump's agenda through could use similar procedural tactics beyond just getting Supreme Court nominees, but on legislation.
SCHUMER: Just as it seemed unthinkable only a few decades ago that we change the rules for nominees, today's vote is a cautionary tale about how unbridled partisan escalation can ultimately overwhelm our basic inclination to work together.
SERFATY: This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowing that is not on the table.
MCCONNELL: There's not a single senator in the majority who thinks we ought to change the legislative filibuster, not one. There's no threat to the legislative filibuster.
SERFATY: Meantime, as all of this was unfolding today here in Washington, Neil Gorsuch was over 1,000 miles away keeping tabs on these procedural moves in the Senate from his home in Colorado.
His final confirmation vote will come tomorrow night here in the Senate. He will be confirmed and he will go on to become the next Supreme Court justice -- Wolf.
BLITZER: He's only 49 years old. So, he will be a United States Supreme Court potentially for 30 or 40 years, long after the Trump presidency is concerned. These decisions have enormous impact.
Sunlen, thank you very much.
I want to bring back Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Senator, you know what? There's a majority, minorities in the Senate, if Democrats were to gain control, regain control of the majority in the Senate and regain control in the White House in 2020, how concerned are you that your party would be in the minority and you wouldn't be able to use that filibuster to block let's say a liberal or even a far-left Supreme Court justice nominee?
FLAKE: Well, we have to remember that what we did today, frankly, was just making de facto -- or du jour what was de facto prior to 2003.
I was here in 1987 here in the Senate as an intern during the Judge Bork nomination, one of the most controversial of all time. Not one senator at that time -- and it would have only taken one to not give unanimous consent to move to a vote and could have filibustered.
Yet it wasn't done. And it wasn't done with Judge Thomas either, very controversial just a couple years later. So, in the past, we simply didn't filibuster judges, and so now the rule is that we can't. Before, it was an issue of behavior. Now it's an issue of the rules.
And I wish we didn't have to do this today, but I believe we didn't have a choice. If we couldn't confirm Judge Gorsuch, a mainstream candidate, how in the world could we confirm anybody else?
BLITZER: You have always been a moderate Republican. You have always wanted to work with your Democratic colleagues
But, realistically, Senator Flake, now that this has happened, are there less opportunities for the two parties in the United States Senate to cooperate and work together?
FLAKE: I think on the legislative filibuster, Mitch McConnell is right. There is no stomach at all to change the legislative filibuster. So there's still the requirement to reach across the aisle to get 60 votes, and I'm glad there is.
If you want legislation that endures, that is durable, then you reach across the aisle. And that's what we have to do on legislation. We will still have to do that, and I'm glad for that. That makes the Senate the Senate.
With regard to judges, like I said, all we're doing is codifying what was the practice and tradition of the Senate for years. I wish we didn't have to do that. I wish we could change behavior, rather than the rules, but that seems impossible right now.
BLITZER: Senator Flake, thanks so much for joining us.
FLAKE: Thank you.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the breaking news. President Trump is now considering military action in Syria. Would it be designed to force Bashar al-Assad out of power?
And stand by for Hillary Clinton's first interview
BLITZER: Thanks so much for joining us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
[18:30:02] BLITZER: Just ahead we'll have more on the breaking news. President Trump is now considering military action in Syria. Would it be designed to force Bashar al-Assad out of power?
And stand by for Hillary Clinton's first interview since the presidential election on the impact of Russia's meddling and other reasons she believes she lost to President Trump. She's also revealing what she'd do about Syria if she were in the White House tonight.
[18:35:09] BLITZER: President Trump now at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. Sources say he's considering -- considering -- U.S. military action in Syria.
The president expected to meet with his national security team tonight, get briefed by the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, on various U.S. military options in Syria. This as the president begins his summit with the visiting Chinese president.
Our experts are here. First of all, we want to welcome our newest member of the CNN team, John Kirby, the former spokesman for the Pentagon and the State Department, our new CNN military and diplomatic analyst. Thanks very much for joining us.
JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Thank you.
BLITZER: Let me play a clip. This is the president speaking out just a little while ago on Syria and the impact it's had, these latest gas attacks, on killing all these kids.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there, and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Referring to Bashar al-Assad. "I think he's running things, so something should happen." But John, that's in marked contrast to what we heard only a few days ago from the secretary of state, Tillerson...
BLITZER: ... the ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, who said regime change in Syria was not necessarily a U.S. priority. How remarkable is this shift?
KIRBY: Well, it's 180 degrees different. I mean, I think it's a pity that it took something like this terrible gas attack to turn their minds to what's going on in Syria and by Assad and by Russia, but it has. And I thought the comments by Nikki Haley and by Secretary Tillerson just the other day were welcome. They were good and strong.
Notably, they included Russia and Iran, which the president didn't do in the Rose Garden, and I didn't hear him do that today. And I think it's really important that as we look in options in Syria, we consider that Russia also needs to be held to account for what they've done, the support they've given.
The only reason that Assad is in the power that he is, the only reason he was the strength he does and the only reason he was able to conduct an attack like that was because he's been supported by Russian military forces on the ground. They give him intelligence; they give him targeting information. And they're actually conducting operations on their own in Syria.
BLITZER: And supported by Iranian forces, as well.
KIRBY: As well as by Iranian forces.
BLITZER: You know, David Axelrod, when the president does meet tonight at Mar-a-Lago with his national security team including his defense secretary, are the options he will consider different than the ones that were before President Obama?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Admiral Kirby can probably speak to this even better than I. I think some of them are: what we would look at before, which is launching missiles from offshore, launching air attacks. It's a matter of degree.
But there's one thing that is different, and Admiral Kirby underscored it, and that is the degree to which the Russians are now deeply enmeshed in the Syrian operations. And that complicates your planning. And it is doubly complicated because of the president's continuing ambivolence about confronting Russia directly on Syria or almost anything else.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, could military action by the U.S. in Syria escalate regional tensions right now?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it could for a couple reasons. No. 1, what David Axelrod just says. We've got to remember the new variable here. That is you're getting involved with the Russians on the ground, not only people on the ground but Russian air defenses; and the Iranians have a presence there that is significant.
There is another piece of this that is missing over the past 24 hours that we skirted over. Let's focus on it for just a second.
On March 30, speaking of regional tensions, on March 30 the secretary of state said it is for the Syrian people to decide the future of their president. That's Bashar al-Assad.
Within the past 24 hours we have the secretary of state suggesting that Bashar al-Assad has no role in the future of Syria. Are we going to get involved with regional players in ousting another dictator, as we did in Iraq? I can't figure out what happened to change the perspective of this White House to make that decision.
Just to close here, Wolf, the president saw a few images from a disaster, a catastrophe where innocents died, including children. In the past six years 400,000 plus people have died. You have nearly 5 million refugees, 7 million plus displaced people. Does the man not read a newspaper? And what happened with a few images that changed the decision about whether Bashar al-Assad should go or not? I can't figure it out.
BLITZER: Because we are, Gloria, hearing from the president today words very different than what he uttered as a candidate and, certainly, as a private citizen.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Completely different. Unrecognizable almost from Donald Trump. I mean just on November 3, right before the election, he said in a speech -- and let me quote this -- "Hillary Clinton wants to start a shooting war in Syria that could very well lead to World War III."
[18:40:12] So here we are now, talking about potential military action against Assad, probably prescribed military action, very limited and targeted or whatever, but it's military action, which we would presumably do unilaterally, by the way, without Congress, it seems to me, but who knows? And it's a very different president.
And I guess I ask the same question that Phil Mudd asks, which is, what has changed? I mean, we saw these pictures in 2013. We know about what's been going on over there. I'm glad the president has come around to this -- to this point of view, quite frankly, but what he said during the campaign was 180 degrees. BLITZER: He still hasn't said anything much about Russia, as Rex
Tillerson, the secretary of state...
BORGER: He hasn't said anything about Russia.
BLITZER: ... has said, or his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley.
Let me turn to this dinner the president's about to have at Mar-a- Lago, Rebecca, with the visiting Chinese president. He has said a lot of things about China over the past year and a half, two years. Let me play this clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We are going to label China a currency manipulator. We're like the piggy bank that's being robbed.
China's taking our jobs, our money, our base, our manufacturing.
The greatest abuser in the history of the country...
One of the greatest thefts in the history of our world, what they've taken out of our country.
We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what they're doing.
Listen, you mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED): we're going to tax you 25 percent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: He goes into this meeting tonight, this dinner and then further talks tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago with the Chinese president with a lot of history there.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Imagine that he won't be using that precise language with the Chinese president in this meeting, Wolf. But Donald Trump is going to have to show his supporters, Americans in general, is there any tough action or no action to back up this tough talk? Or is he going to work with the Chinese in a way that maybe people haven't expected?
And there is, of course, a great incentive for them to work together on some issues like confronting North Korea. That's not something that the United States is really prepared to go alone. We've benefited from Chinese help on that, and Donald Trump has encouraged them to take a tougher stance toward North Korea as these tensions have escalated.
BLITZER: Let's see if the Chinese do that.
BERG: And then of course...
BLITZER: So far they've been reluctant to do very much...
BERG: And of course the issue...
BLITZER: ... to reduce that nuclear threat, the ballistic missile threat, from North Korea.
You know, John, let me talk a little bit about Hillary Clinton, because today she just gave her first interview at the Tina Brown Women in the World Summit; and she addressed the issue of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, goals in the 2016 presidential election, which she lost. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: People have asked me, "Well, you know why do you think he did that to you?" And, you know, I don't -- I don't think it's too complicated. I think he had his desire to destabilize us and others and, you know, he's not exactly fond of strong women.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER; What do you think? You're smiling.
KIRBY: Yes, I think she's a hundred percent right, just based on my interaction with Russian officials, both at the Pentagon and the State Department. It's a very masculine environment there.
They also -- look, she was tough on Russia when she was secretary of state. She was very clear, she was very candid, and I don't think they appreciated that. And, you know, she did come out publicly supporting some of the political protests, which I think Putin never forgave her for.
There's no doubt in my mind that -- I think it can be argued, the degree whether he was, you know, specifically trying to get Trump elected. He was certainly trying to hurt her chances in the election. There's no question about that. As well as trying to sow doubt and discord in our own democratic process.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, what did you think of Hillary Clinton's assessment?
MUDD: Boy, I'm going to take -- go out on a limb here, Wolf, and make a political comment. I think technically, I agree with the admiral. She's correct. Obviously, the Russians manipulated or tried to manipulate an election. Obviously, they were trying in favor of Donald Trump.
But I want to hear the rest of the interview, because I'm afraid what she might say, and I gather from the initial reactions what she might say is that was partly responsible for her loss. As an outside observer, I don't think she ran a good campaign, and I don't think she connected with the American people. And until the Democratic Party starts to say, as a nonpolitical person, "We've got to do better with the American people and stop blaming the FBI, Jim Comey and the Russian intervention," I think they've got a problem. BLITZER: All right. Your wish is our command. You want to hear more
of what she had to say about her loss. We'll play more of what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: Certainly, misogyny played a role. I mean, that just has to be admitted. And it's a pretty simple but unfortunate phenomenon. With men, success and ambition are correlated with likability. So the more successful a man is, the more likeable he becomes.
With a woman, guess what? It's the exact opposite. There are things we certainly could have done better. There are things I certainly could have done better, but I think it is fair to say that the outside intervention, the combination of the Comey letter on October 28th, WikiLeaks which played a much bigger role than I think many people understand yet, had the determinative effect.
I don't want anybody running campaigns or the Republican Party to have their communications stolen, which is what it was. It was a theft. It was a more effective theft even than Watergate back in the day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Gloria, what do you think?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's hard to deconstruct that. She -- she had -- there is misogyny. There is no doubt about it. Women candidates are always treated differently than men.
But she didn't do well with white working class non-college educated women either. She had a problem with a lot of women. So, you know, on that front, you can't say it was just misogyny.
You know, I think that everything that Hillary Clinton said is probably accurate to a degree, but I'm with Phil Mudd. I think there's much more to her loss than all of that. Comey certainly changed the equation, absolutely, towards the end of the campaign and it cost them an awful lot.
Did it cost them the election totally? I don't think we'll ever know, but I do think that she was a flawed candidate and she did not connect as Phil says in many ways, and I think she's always going to be asked about that, but needs to move beyond it at this point.
BLITZER: I'm anxious to get David Axelrod's reaction to what Hillary Clinton just said. Go ahead, David.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I agree with much of what you said, including the fact that she could've done better and her campaign could've done better. There's no doubt that the factors that she mentioned were hindrances to her campaign.
But I liken it to the human body. Her campaign was in a weakened state and therefore things like Comey coming along when he did put her in a position to lose that race. Had her campaign been in stronger shape or a strong economic message for example, which was lacking, they may have been in a better chance -- they may have had a better chance to repel the impact of some of those negatives that she outlined in her remarks.
BLITZER: Rebecca, what was your reaction?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it was interesting, Wolf, that she said that WikiLeaks did have a determinative effect. It sounds to me like she really does think these outside external factors made the difference for her in this race and that otherwise she would've won. And, of course, as Gloria said, maybe that's true, maybe it's not.
But it's really interesting with her having had months to really think about this, to reflect, that still she's not really taking the responsibility herself for most of this loss. She's saying it was the Russians. It was all these external factors.
BLITZER: She also weighed in on the trump presidency so far and I want you to guys to weigh in after we hear this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CLINTON: I don't understand the commitment to hurt so many people that this -- this administration -- this White House seems to be pursuing. There's so many examples in just the first hundred days.
And then, of course, what they did or tried to do to the health care bill, which I did -- I will confess to this. Having listened to them talk about repeal and replace for eight years or seven years, now, they had not a clue what that meant. They had no idea.
I don't know that any of them even read the bill. Read the law. Understood how it worked. It was so obvious and --
You know, health care is complicated, right? And -- and so they -- they don't know what to do and -- yes, I do admit that was somewhat gratifying as a, you know -- we're going back --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Did you get the sense, David Axelrod, how much she regrets not winning that election, at least that comes through?
AXELROD: Well, and how much she enjoyed engaging in that repartee. The question is, whether this is the role that she should be playing at this time.
[18:50:05] Whether she should just jump right back into the fray, pick up all the these arguments, defend her campaign, defend her candidacy. I'm not sure that's the best role for her to be playing for herself at this moment.
BLITZER: Phil, had a do you think?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think she's reflecting in some ways what the president has done to us. He's taken us to a negative place. He said the Congress is wrong. The judge's inappropriately turned down my immigration policy. It's the media that created the Russia problem.
We want from a president what Ronald Reagan gave us. We live in a shining city on a hill, how do we move forward?
I agree with David Axelrod, she has a role in America. How do we set a goal for America to do better, whether it's an education and health care? Instead, she's looking back at an election that she lost. I don't think both of them -- either one of them is right. I agree in her portrayal of the current president, he's way too dark. But why doesn't she paint a picture of the future instead of a picture of the past? That's my question.
BLITZER: First interview that we've seen of Hillary Clinton at the Tina Brown Women of the World Summit. Nick Kristof of "The New York Times" doing the questioning.
Just ahead, we're following the breaking news as President Trump weighs military action in Syria and discusses his options with his national security team.
[18:56:00] BLITZER: Tonight, an unseen enemy has the potential to unleash a global health crisis. A new CNN film explores the growing threat from infectious diseases and the danger of a deadly pandemic.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. LARRY BRILLIANT: Over the last three decades, there have been about 30 newly emerging diseases that had the potential to be pandemics. If we do nothing, it's not a matter of if there will be a global pandemic, it's just a matter of when, and which virus, and how bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The world changes around us at increasing speed. We caused a lot of that change. Migrating to cities, stripping the earth of its resources, and altering primeval jungle.
LAURIE GARRETT, GLOBAL HEALTH JOURNALIST: We are seeing whole entire ecologies, that which you can see with your eye and that which you can only see with a microscope. One system after another completely reshaped. In every case, this affords opportunities for viruses and bacteria to seek out new homes, cause new havoc, including disease for human beings.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: I'm joined now by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Dr. Fauci, which infectious disease right now worries you the most?
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASE: Well, the thing that's most worrisome for a long time now is the possibility of a pandemic influenza. And the reason is that if an influenza emerges that no one has had any experience with, it could rage through the population of the world and it's very easily spread. Respiratory illnesses like influenza are a grave threat.
You know, we had Ebola in West Africa. The way you get Ebola is by close personal contact with body fluids if someone is sick. So, it's very difficult in the broad population to spread something like Ebola. Whereas with influenza, because of the ease of spread and travel throughout the world, 18 hours you're on the other half of the world, that's what we worry about.
BLITZER: So, how do we deal with that? How do we prevent a pandemic like that from occurring?
FAUCI: Well, there are several ways to do that. I mean, outbreaks you cannot prevent, the emergence of a new infection. But the real trick is to prevent it from going to an outbreak to an epidemic and from an epidemic to a pandemic. And one of the ways to do that is to have a good vaccine capability. And in fact, what we're doing right now, in China, there's a bird flu that's smoldering there, not spreading very rapidly. We're already making a vaccine against that, to make sure that if it develops the capability of going easily from human to human, we're already have a head start on the vaccine.
BLITZER: We haven't heard much about Zika. First of all, is there a vaccine for Zika in the works?
FAUCI: Oh, more than in the works, Wolf. We actually started an advanced phase two study just about a week and a half ago right here in the United States and in Puerto Rico and we'll be going into South America with it as we get into the summer. So, we're well on the way to a Zika vaccine.
BLITZER: But is Zika still problem?
FAUCI: Well, Zika is less a problem now than it was a year a half a go. But as we get into the summer months, particularly in a place like Puerto Rico, which was very seriously hit with Zika, we want to keep an eye on that because that may again re-explode in Puerto Rico.
BLITZER: And so, you think, you think that the vaccine will be ready in time?
FAUCI: Probably not. I think that at best, if we get enough infections that we can show that it works, it likely won't be until the end of 2017, the beginning of 2018, before we have a vaccine.
BLITZER: You know, we're grateful for everything you do, everything NIH does. Appreciate it very much. FAUCI: Thank you.
BLITZER: Dr. Anthony Fauci, thank you.
And "Unseen Enemy", by the way, the documentary premieres Friday night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN. Must-see TV. You'll have to see this very, very important.
Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer this THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.