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U.S.: About 20 Syrian Planes Destroyed In Missile Strike; Sen. McCain: Trump Was "Deeply Moved" At Plight Of The Children; Sources: Trump Considers Staff Shake-Up; Source: U.S. Probing Possible Russian Role In Gas Attack; Russia Suspends Anti-Conflict Agreement With U.S.; Russia: U.S. Strike A "Flagrant" Violation Of International Law. Aired 5-6 pm ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:14] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now. Breaking news. Strike on Syria. The Pentagon is reporting significant damage to a Syrian air base after President Trump launches a missile strike in response to Syria's chemical weapons attack. It's the first direct American assault on the Assad regime since the war began six years ago.

Policy shift. President Trump's decision to strike Syria is a dramatic shift from his promises not to get involved in the conflict. Did the horrific images from Syria cause a change in his strategy? What message does the strike send to enemies and allies around the world?

Putin responds. Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the attack a significant blow to the Russian-American relationship as the Pentagon announces it's investigating possible Russian involvement in the chemical attack.

And staff shake-up? A senior white house official says a major staff shake-up is likely adding the situation is reaching critical mass. New questions about the future of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in "The Situation Room."

Breaking news. The Pentagon reports significant damage after a U.S. strike on a Syrian air base. Military officials say approximately 20 planes were destroyed. The surprise American strike was the first against the Syrian regime since war broke out six years ago.

U.S. ships launched 60 cruise missiles at the air base believed to be the source of a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people including many children. A U.S. official says the Pentagon is investigating whether Russia played a role in the chemical attack. President Trump ordered the missile strike after expressing horror and outrage at images of young victims.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley says the United States won't ignore the use of chemical weapons saying it's prepared to do more. While U.S. allies are backing the missile strike. Russia calls it a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression. Russia has suspended its deconfliction agreement with the United States aimed at preventing clashes in the skies over Syria with notable exceptions.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are backing President Trump's decision to strike Syria, but there's also strong bipartisan agreement that he should consult Congress on any further military action. The missile strike overshadowed what the president calls a tremendous summit with China's leader, and it comes amid new signs of a possible shake-up among top white house staffers.

There are now new questions about the future of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. I'll talk to Republican Senator John McCain. He is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories. Let's begin with the U.S. missile strike in syria and the dramatic fallout. Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, the Pentagon is reporting major damage to that Syrian air base.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They do believe, Wolf, at least for now, that they have rendered much of that base inoperable from further chemical attacks, but this is now a growing impact of what were the Russians up to. We now know that there was a Russian drone flying near where that chemical attack happened, and a lot of questions about how much the Russians may have known.


STARR (voice-over): This was the message President Trump wanted to send to Bashar Al Assad. Attack with chemical weapons. The U.S. will attack you back. Fifty-nine cruise missiles striking the Syrian air base the U.S. says was used to launch aircraft killing men, women and children Tuesday with a nerve agent-filled bomb.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more.

STARR: But this was also a message to Moscow which denies the Syrian chemical attack even happened.

MARIA ZAKHAROVA, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESWOMAN (though translator): To justify its armed action, Washington has entirely twist what had happened in Idlib. The American side cannot understand that the Syrian government troops did not use chemical weapons there. Damascus simply does not possess it.

STARR: Many of these people died of asphyxiation from a nerve agent bomb. The U.S. stays will investigate any possibility of Russian complicity including Russian troops were at the air base where this Russian drone captured the aftermath of the U.S. attack. Did the Russians know anything about the chemical bombing?

[17:05:07] Was it is a Russian warplane that later bombed a hospital treating victims, perhaps trying to destroy evidence? And after years of regime chemical attacks, U.S. military officials now say they will more aggressively monitor Syria's chemical weapons program and potential Russian involvement.

The Pentagon showed what it says was proof to justify the limited U.S. strike, the track of the Syrian plane and imagery of where the nerve agent hurt. The Syrian military denied using chemical weapons blaming terrorist groups.

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

STARR: It was a quickly planned U.S. strike.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen.

STARR: By the time President Trump spoke in the Rose Garden, Wednesday, the military was already working on options for a response. General Joseph Otell was hundreds of miles away from his headquarters so a temporary command center was rapidly set up for him to oversee the operation.

At 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the President gave the order to go ahead with the limited strike. The U.S. then placed a final call to the Russians one hour before the strike to warn them. At 8:40 the tomahawk missiles struck the Syrian air base.


STARR: The question now is really what happens next? What happens to U.S.-Russian military relations? Both countries have troops on the ground inside Syria. Both countries have aircraft. They are trying to stay out of each other's way, but if they stop talking, will there be some sort of unexpected confrontation? Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

The missile strike against Syria sent a message around the world, even as it overshadowed President Trump's crucial summit at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach with china's leader. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, what are you learning?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a senior administration official tells me the air strikes on Syria should not be interpreted as the beginning of a wider campaign to take out Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad but aides to the president are making it very clear Assad must halt all use of its chemical weapons.


ACOSTA (voice-over): The day after he ordered missile strikes on Syria, President Trump tried to keep the focus on what was supposed to be the narrative of the week, his visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China.

ACOSTA: And while the president had no further comment on the Syrian operation --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: do you have any comment on what's next after the strikes on Syria is it.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

ACOSTA: White House officials are suggesting the president's message is clear, that he will not tolerate any for images of innocent children slaughtered by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happens next with Syria, Sean?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, the president is getting updated by his national security team.

ACOSTA: Asked whether administration policy had shifted in favor of regime change in Syria, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said only Assad's use of chemical weapons must end.

SPICER: The Syrian government, the Assad regime, should at the minimum agree to abide by the agreements they made not to use chemical weapons. I think that should be a minimum standard throughout the world. So, I think that's where we start

ACOSTA: White House laid out a time line of the president's decision in favor of a quick strike starting on Tuesday when he learned of the chemical weapons attack to later that night when he was presented with military options. On Wednesday the president reviewed those options and then ordered the strikes a day later, just hours before the missiles were launched and world leaders were notified.

TRUMP: It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.

ACOSTA: Administration officials concede it's a major evolution for the president who has long opposed military intervention in Syria right up days before the election last fall.

TRUMP: Hillary Clinton wants to confront nuclear-armed Russia with a shooting war in Syria that could very well lead us into World War III. For what? She doesn't get it. She doesn't understand.

ACOSTA: Even as the president has many in both parties supporting his decision --

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I think this strike was simply about don't use chemical weapons again. That's what this strike was about.

ACOSTA: There are questions such as how much further the president can go without the approval of Congress?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I wish that we would obey the constitution and do this the way our founding fathers intended.

[17:10:03] Our founding fathers gave the power to declare war to Congress because they want to make it difficult to go to war, and this is war.

ACOSTA: While the president's former rival Hillary Clinton notes the president is professing to save children in Syria after recommending that the U.S. close the door to refugees from that country.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I also hope that they will recognize that we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close America's doors to them.


ACOSTA: Now Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters late today that the U.S. is preparing to place new economic sanctions on Syria in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack. Meanwhile, the Chinese president has left Florida, but the president will remain here for the weekend. According to his top aides, President Trump will continue to review the results of the Syrian strikes and consider any next steps. Wolf, they are saying there could be more steps if Assad continues to use those chemical weapons. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. We've heard that throughout the day. Jim Acosta reporting for us, thank you. Let's get more reaction now from the region itself. Our senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward is just inside Turkey's border with Syria. Clarissa, first of all, what are you learning?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I mean, this has been an incredible shift in terms of the balance of power on the battlefield. Just one week ago the situation in Syria looked very different. You had Russia and Iran empowered. You had the Assad regime poised to completely wipe out the opposition and take back all remaining territory, and you had America largely neutered on the sidelines, not having a huge amount of leverage in terms of dictating how this battle would play out.

Now, even though the Trump Administration has been very clear that this is a moderate, proportional response, that they do not intend to continue with these types of strikes unless provoked. You are seeing a reconfiguration of the balance of power on the battlefield. The question the people in Syria are asking, two things. First of all, how does President Assad respond? Most likely our viewers probably don't realize that Assad's army is nearing collapse. It is in fact the Russian and Iranian forces what are really doing the majority of the fighting on the ground, so the answer to that question will really likely be answered by Russia. How does Russia respond here? Does Russia decide to take it on the chin and accept this as a one-off, or does Russia decide to fight back?

The second question a lot of Syrians want to know is why doesn't the U.S. do more? Why is it only chemical weapons that cross the red line? And why, when children are dying, does it matter whether it's at the hands of chemical weapons, wolf, or ordinary munitions?

BLITZER: Is there an expectation where you are, Clarissa, right on the border that the U.S. under the Trump Administration is about to get more directly involved in this war, not just against ISIS in Syria but against the Bashar Al Assad' regime in Syria?

WARD: I think what people realize now, Wolf, is that it's anyone's guess, that President Donald Trump is not a predictable entity, that he could go a number of different ways. What it does show is that America once again is having a seat at the table. It has skin in the game. It has leverage, and that could potentially empower the opposition, even if the U.S. does stick to this measured proportional response and does not try to dive in deeper. Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward on the border there with Syria, be careful over there, Clarissa. We'll check back with you. Thank you very much.

Joining us now is Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona. He is the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, thanks very much.


BLITZER: Do you believe that Russia played an actual role in the delivery of those chemical weapons to kill those civilians, including a lot of children the other day, that they were involved or at a minimum knew about it?

MCCAIN: I would imagine that they would probably know about it since they are allies of Bashar Al Assad, but they are the ones that used the precision weapons against hospitals in Aleppo. Look, they are as bad as Bashar Al Assad. Come on, they have helped them with the barrel bombs. They have bailed them out time after time, but especially again. It was Russian aircraft with precision weapons that targeted -- that specifically targeted hospitals, send drones over them, identify them and then attack them.

BLITZER: So Putin promised the U.S. that they would do whatever was necessary to remove all of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles a few years back, right?

MCCAIN: That was another great victory of the Obama administration and John Kerry. They used to brag about their failure to act after they said they were going.

BLITZER: The red line?

MCCAIN: Yes, the red line. There's one thing worse than not acting and that's to say you're going to act and not act and that's what Obama and Kerry did.

[17:15:03] BLITZER: If Bashar Al Assad has committed war crimes and you believe he has.

MCCAIN: Sure. BLITZER: So what you're saying is Putin has committed war crimes in

Syria as well.

MCCAIN: Certainly complicit. He's certainly complicit. I'm sure you saw the front page story from "Wall Street Journal," the terrible story about the prisons in Damascus and the thousand of people that are starved and beaten and assaulted and killed.

Look, this is a -- this is really the quintessence of evil and we grow a little numb of it and then we see the pictures which break the hearts all of us, but that goes on every day, and I think it's terrible, but I also think it's terrible when a barrel bomb is dropped which is filled with shrapnel which flies in all directions and wounds and kills people as well, and, frankly, one hell of a lot more people have been killed bill barrel bombs than killed by chemical weapons. So let's draw a line and say stop. Stop your air attacks, stop them.

BLITZER: So, what's the next step? What do you think the president of the United States needs to do now, now that he's done something? The Obama Administration refused to do for so many years, hit any Syrian military target, only going after ISIS in Syria but not the regime.

MCCAIN: I think we should stay after ISIS. We can walk and chew gum. We should continue to take Mosul and ISIS and the long struggle we're going to have with radical Islam which is metastasizing as we speak, but at the same time we should tell Bashar Al Assad and Vladimir Putin, they have got to stop slaughtering their people, and that means grounding their air force, and that way I believe that we can end arming and equipping the free Syrian army, what's left of it, and a safe zone.

One of the things you can cure this problem with, refugees, that our correspondent just talked about is to have a safe zone where they can go to where they are not going to be bombarded with barrel bombs.

BLITZER: But if the U.S. steps up this military action against the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, aren't you worried about potentially a direct confrontation with the Russians?

MCCAIN: It's the Russians who came in to bail out Bashar Al Assad. It seems to me it's their responsibility, not ours.

BLITZER: They show no signs of leaving. The Iranians and their militia supporters, they show no signs of leaving. If the U.S. gets deeply involved in this, potentially this could be a huge, huge conflict.

MCCAIN: Potentially it could also be the continued slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Barrel bombs doing the same thing you saw done to these -- the tragic story of the children. The Iranians with their continued assertion of superiority and supremacy in the region and more and more violence and killing.

In other words, we've got choices. If you think the last eight years were a good idea, then let's keep doing it. If you don't, then we ought to back the president but also recognize this is the beginning. This is only the first step. If we want to succeed, we're going to have to step by step do a lot more than is being done.

BLITZER: What you're saying is a lot more than tomahawk cruise missiles.


BLITZER: You want warplanes to go in there with pilots. They have air defense systems and they could be endangered but you also saying ground troops, U.S. ground troop need to go in there and help save these people?

MCCAIN: I would say that we need to have some advice and assist people just as right now in Syria we have American troops that are helping those who are taking Raqqa.

BLITZER: There are about thousand U.S. troops in Syria.

MCCAIN: Bashar Al Assad will not be overthrown by American troops. It would be by a trained and equipped free Syrian army from a safe zone that would prevail. The only reason why Bashar Al Assad is in power today is because of Russia and Iran, certainly not because of Syrians. So, I think it's a good beginning. It sends a tremendously important signal. I'm glad the president did it, but to think that this is the end, a one strike to one field is frankly an inaccurate assessment of the situation.

BLITZER: You're hoping for a lot more?

MCCAIN: Yes, but let's see. I think -- I'm hoping for more and we need to do more but let's see what the reaction is. Let's see -- this is a -- as you saw from a person who came on your program, this has invigorated those people who have subjected to Bashar Al Assad's cruelty now for eight years without any real response, so let's -- let's take it step by step, but let's recognize this is only the beginning.

BLITZER: Are we seeing a new Donald Trump because during his private years.

MCCAIN: I know.

BLITZER: During the campaign, during the transition, even early on in his presidency, you know, he was always trying to make very, very nice to the Russians and all of a sudden he goes in there last night with these tomahawk cruise missiles and it could be at least by proxy or indirectly an attack on the Russians themselves.

[17:20:02] MCCAIN: Wolf, there's a great deal of difference, as you know, between a candidate without responsibility and the awesome responsibility of a president of the United States and I talked to the president on the phone. He was deeply moved.

BLITZER: When did you talk to the president? MCCAIN: The morning after it happened, and he was deeply moved, as

all of us were, at the plight of those poor children and you can see that in his remarks. And as president of the United States you have to look at these issues in a more somber and sober way, and I think that's what he's doing and he's surrounded by people who give him the best advice. I'm talking about his national security team, McMaster, Mattis and Dan Coates, Kelly, those are really good, strong people.

BLITZER: You know, it looks like, you know, he's been not just dramatically influenced by these pictures but by these military advisers that you appreciate, that you admire, but, you know, I guess the whole notion of him so dramatically changing, this has been going on for six years, 400, maybe half a million people have been killed and a lot of children have been killed and millions have been made homeless, and the question is where has he been all of these years? You've been concerned about that.

MCCAIN: He's been a candidate and not president. He's been president for 70 or 80 days or whatever it is. That's the length of time. For eight years Barack Obama sat by and watched this happen to much -- and after eight years of that, it's going to take more than one air strike and one base in order to turn it around, but I think it's the right thing to do, but it's only the first thing do.

BLITZER: President Obama asked Congress for authorization. He didn't get it from us. You know, you're giving me that -- you're not impressed by that.

MCCAIN: I'm not impressed by that. The president told me and Lindsey Graham he was going to act. He didn't say he was going to go to Congress and ask for permission. He called us over in the Oval Office and said they have done it, I'm going to act and you guys can count on it, so -- and then, of course, but he shouldn't have said it unless he was sure that he would get the approval of Congress, Wolf, if that was one of the reasons for him -- one of the conditions for him to act. He should never have announced to the world that we're going to act.

BLITZER: I'm going to ask you this question and think about it. We need a quick break.


BLITZER: Does President Trump now need formal congressional authorization to do what you want him to do, to step up the military activity and try to help the folks in Syria? Stay with us much more with Senator McCain right after this.


[17:26:54] BLITZER: Our breaking news. The Pentagon now reporting significant damage to a Syrian air base with some 20 planes destroyed after President Trump launched a missile strike in response to Syria's chemical weapons attack. We're back with the Chairman of the Senate Armed Serviced Committee John McCain.

Tell me a little bit more about the phone conversation you had with the president. Did you emerge convinced that the two of you were on the same page as far as Syria is concerned?

MCCAIN: I got off the phone knowing that the president was deeply concerned and deeply moved at these attacks which killed these children, and you could see from his remarks that he made announcing those air strikes. And I think that he is like a lot of presidents growing in the job and recognizing the enormity of his responsibilities, and I'm glad that he seems to rely on that national security team that you and I talked about earlier. That's as good a team as I've ever seen.

BLITZER: Did you -- were you surprised by his decision last night? Did it surprise you when you heard that U.S. tomahawk cruise missiles were launched against that air base?

MCCAIN: No, because he -- I got a call before the launch from Mattis and also from Kelly, but when I talked to him the morning before, I could tell that he was deeply concerned. Now, to the point where I thought it was entirely possible that he would decide to act on the advice of his national security team.

BLITZER: Does the president need congressional authorization for the use of military force against Bashar Al Assad's regime, a formal piece of legislation? Does he need it right now to take the kind of action you want?

MCCAIN: He does not. President Reagan didn't need it when after the bombing of a disco in Berlin that killed Americans striking Libya, but if this is a long-term campaign, then I think we ought to examine it, but I'll tell you the practical problems. The practical problems is, and I've dealt with this issue for a long time, and that is the war -- it's called the War Powers Act, is the president is the commander in chief, and he proposes, Congress disposes as far as money is concerned, but as far as the actual mechanics of the war is concerned, there's never been agreement. The War Powers Act has never been challenged in the courts because every president, Republican and Democrat, have been afraid that it's going to be ruled constitutional.

BLITZER: You totally disagree with your Republican colleague Senator Rand Paul on this issue.

MCCAIN: I always do.

BLITZER: Not the first time. I'll read to you the statement that he released. "While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The president needs congressional authorization for military action as required by the constitution, and I call on him to come to congress for a proper debate. Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different." Your reaction?

MCCAIN: I don't really react to Senator Paul. We're just too different, and he doesn't have any real influence in the United States Senate.

BLITZER: But he's not alone there. There's other senators and members of the House who agree with him -- MCCAIN: That's fine.

BLITZER: -- that the president needs that kind of --

MCCAIN: I'll be glad to discuss that issue with the people as I have for years.

BLITZER: You don't even want to respond to that?

MCCAIN: Pardon me. I don't pay any attention frankly to what Senator Paul says.

BLITZER: Tell me why you disagree with him?

MCCAIN: Because he's wrong.

BLITZER: Just on this issue or a whole bunch of other issues?

MCCAIN: Every other issue that I know of that has to do with national security.

BLITZER: His argument, and those who are like him in the house and the senate, they say, "Look at the disaster that's unfolded, for example, in Libya. The U.S. launched tomahawk cruise missiles to try to get rid of Gadhafi, and it's a failed state now. ISIS has a big chunk of Libya.


BLITZER: And they go back to the war to get rid of Saddam Hussein who was a very bad guy, as we all know, but look at the disaster over these years in Iraq.


MCCAIN: I'll be glad to take a trip down memory lane with you.

BLITZER: And then what -- and the point, though -- the point that they're making is the United States should simply stay out of these areas. It's going to be a disaster. That's the point they make.

MCCAIN: And that -- and that point obviously is a very different version of history. You want to take Libya? After Gadhafi was killed? Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, I wrote about it and we begged them. You got to rebuild the country. You can't walk away. He walked away then bad things happen. And that's what happened, we walked away thanks to Barack Obama. As far as Iraq is concerned, we had it won. Thanks to the surge. David Petraeus, one of the great generals of our time. It was done, and what did we do? Pull everybody out. We pulled everybody out, we predicted what was going to happen. Wolf, the facts on the ground are what dictated those failures and failure of leadership for eight years, and we had both of them won, especially the war in Iraq, where David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, they won.

And Iraq was doing fine, and then they decided to pull everybody out. By the way, Afghanistan, in 15 years later, the -- our commanding general in Afghanistan says what? We're in a stalemate. We're in a stalemate. Why? Because their strategy was don't lose, OK? We can win in Afghanistan. We could have won -- we did win in Iraq and we could have maintained that if we had had a -- I'll be glad to go back through all of these with you, but fact is, if the United States had not intervened in Afghanistan, then obviously, we would have then allowed the attacks of 9/11 to go unanswered. I don't think most of Americans wanted that to happen.

BLITZER: I think everybody wanted to go after Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.


BLITZER: But then Iraq came into the picture and then Libya and all of these other -- let's not go down memory lane right now, but I do want you to respond -- I do want you to respond to Hillary Clinton, what she said today, about the president's action.


BLITZER: Listen to this.


CLINTON: The action taken last night needs to be followed by a broader strategy to end Syria's civil war. I hope this administration will move forward in a way that is both strategic and consistent with our values, and I also hope that they will recognize that we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close America's doors to them.


MCCAIN: Sure, my first response is that I wish she would have said -- I wish that Barack Obama had taken the advice of I and David Petraeus and Bob Gates gave him back in 2013 and then we wouldn't have had to worry about that. Second of all, yes, we should examine people's credentials, but let's have a safe zone, which we have been advocating all these years and she advocated the President of the United States where these refugees can go, and let's protect them.

BLITZER: Should President Trump reverse his position on barring Syrian refugees from coming to the United States?

MCCAIN: I think he should -- he is correct saying that people should be vetted, but -- and I believe our interpreters especially should be able to come to this country, and I think there ought to be significant vetting, but win the conflict. The refugees are the result of failed policies and failed leadership, they're not the cause of it. So let's -- so let's go back to the cause and that is allowing Bashar al-Assad with the Russians, with Hezbollah, with the Iranian revolutionary guard and have -- being responsible for the slaughter of over 400,000 people and 6 million refugees, and that will continue as long as Bashar al-Assad is allowed to continue to slaughter his citizens. BLITZER: We're out of time. But in the interim, while the war is

going on, should some of those Syrian refugees. Kids, for example --

MCCAIN: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. Sure.

BLITZER: -- women be allowed to come to the United States.

MCCAIN: Absolutely. As long as they are vetted. People are coming out of Raqqa as we speak that are -- their mission is to get to the United States and commit acts of a terror. We have that obligation as well.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, good to have you hear in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: No, no, no. Exchange is very good. I appreciate it very much. And we welcome you back any time.

[17:35:02] MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: John McCain, always good to have him here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Coming up, we'll have more on the breaking news. Military officials say 59 out of the 60 cruise missiles did hit their targets last night, destroying about 20 planes used by the Syrian government. Will that stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons or further destabilize Syria and the Middle East?


[17:39:49] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the wake of the U.S. cruise missile attack on Syrian regime -- a Syrian regime airbase. U.S. officials now say about 20 planes used by Bashar al- Assad's regime were destroyed by the barrage of U.S. cruise missiles. Let's get to our guests and our analysts. General Kimmett, you know a lot about this region. Will Bashar al-Assad now stop using chemical weapons?


BLITZER: But look what happened to him? Look at the response.

KIMMETT: Right. 59 T lamps on a couple of airplanes. He wants to win, he wants to take his country back, and he will do anything he can to take his country back, so he will withstand anything that is thrown at him. He has a bunker mentality, and unless the Russians bring him to the diplomatic table, he'll keep doing it.

BLITZER: Will the Russians tolerate him if he uses more gas, poison gas, chemical weapons?

KIMMETT: Well, it -- as Secretary Tillerson said, the Russians are part of this. They either didn't do their job in removing the weapons, or they were complicit in this, so they were either incompetent or complicit.

BLITZER: What did you think of this airstrike, Doug?

DOUG OLLIVANT, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL DIRECTOR FOR IRAQ: I think I'm going to disagree with my good friend the general. I think that this has to change Assad's calculus. Yes, he got some marginal gains from using these horrific chemical weapons against his enemies, and in turn, the United States took out 20 of his planes. Those 20 planes are more important to him than this one chemical attack. To use baseball terms, I think this was a brushback pass by the United States. We've warned him this is not acceptable behavior, but you can probably still get what you want without violating this norm on chemical weapons.

BLITZER: And you believe the Russians are complicit?

OLLIVANT: I don't know.

BLITZER: You believe the Russians are complicit?

KIMMETT: They are either sins of commission or sins of omission.

BLITZER: This is -- Sara, this has been a huge reversal from the president, everything he said as a private citizen, then as a candidate, then during the transition. All of a sudden, he authorizes this cruise missile attack.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, and I do think, you know, when we were watching him in the Rose Garden with the King of Jordan, he was still weighing his options on what to do. It was almost a moment of reality for him. Him saying, "It's my responsibility now," and I think that that is one of the big things that changed. He saw these horrific images on television leading the news every night and realized you are uniquely in a position to respond to this when you are the President of the United States.

And not only that, but every other world leader is looking to you to say what are you going to do? What are you going to do next? And they're determining their reactions based on that, and I don't think that you can understand the full reality of that moment until you are in the White House, until you're being briefed on what's going on, and until people are laying out the actual options to respond, and I think that that's what happened.

BLITZER: What's the U.S. National's interest in launching these kinds of attacks against the Bashar al-Assad regime which the Obama administration refused to do over all these years?

KIMMETT: Well, first of all, we got a commitment to the non- proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and that's probably first and foremost, but also we have a strong interest in making sure that there's peace and stability in that region as difficult as that may seem, but Bashar al-Assad continues to be a catalyst in promoting more and more violence in the region, and he's working with his Iranian allies and these Russian allies to foster and continue that instability. BLITZER: The cruise missile strike last night, how is that going to

affect, if you believe it will, the overall war against ISIS inside Syria?

OLLIVANT: Very little. There are a number of wars going on here in Syria, of course. We have the civil war, we have this burgeoning war between the Kurdish and Turkish entrance from the north. And we have the war against ISIS. This strike against the cruise missiles, it takes away a few of his planes but it's not as if Bashar al-Assad is bombing ISIS every day anyway. I don't think this affects the ISIS campaigns significantly.

BLITZER: And, Sara, you covered the White House and you covered Trump for a long time. You've seen all of these reports about a potential staff shake-up going on. What's the latest signals that you're getting?

MURRAY: I think this president is at a moment where he's not particularly pleased with some of these people in these top positions. He's not as far along on his domestic agenda as he wanted to be. This was the most consequential moment of his presidency so far, and I think that gives you pause. It makes you say, "Are these the people that you want around advicing you? Is everything going the way you want it to be going?" And every indication we have right now is no, but there's no clear answer who would be the next chief of staff. Who might be the next chief strategist to replace Steve Bannon? These are difficult positions working for a very difficult boss, so, you know, certainly, the rumor mill is swirling about a potential staff shake- up, but right now, it's just a potential one. And the White House is officially denying that there are any problems and saying everyone is safe.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting that the generals he's brought in, like H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, General Mattis, General Kelly at Department of Homeland Security. He's listening to these generals. They clearly have an impact on him.

KIMMETT: I think so. Particularly, if you look at the shake-up that happened in the National Security Council. The Homeland Security Adviser has now been somewhat demoted. Obviously, we've seen Steve Bannon being taken off the National Security Council. That is the work of H.R. McMaster. He is trying to get the National Security Council slimmed down to the way it used to be, as opposed to the doubling of size that we saw during the Obama administration.

[17:45:02] BLITZER: What do you think of this national security team the president has surrounded himself with?

OLLIVANT: Well, they are mostly generals, so, obviously, as former military people, we're okay with that, but they -- these are more mainstream figures than tend to be in the rest of the administration. You know, General Mattis is very mainstream. General McMaster, perhaps leans a little right, but essentially mainstream. These are figures who could have easily worked in a Hillary Clinton administration, very mainstream defense establishment. BLITZER: He clearly shows signs, the president, of changing his mind

or some would say evolving on various issues over the years. I've interviewed him many times over the years, and his positions have evolved. You think his position on refugees, for example, could change in all all of a sudden seeing the horror of what's going on in Syria, begin to allow some Syrian refugees into the United States?

MURRAY: This is a very difficult box he's in because we don't have any indication that he wants to change his policy on refugees, that he wants to change his policy on the travel ban, but obviously, you are in a sticky arena once you begin doing missile strikes in an area and then saying "If you're displaced, we won't accept you," but he said, just this week, that he's flexible and I think that what President Trump did is a good indication that he's not necessarily falling into the boxes of anyone's worries. You know, people worried, one, that he would be so nationalist that he would never respond no matter what was happening on the world stage or, two, that he was so trigger happy he would just move to blow up his enemies whenever he wanted. That's not what we saw. We saw a targeted response. He obviously listened to the counsel of the generals around him and so I think that he has said he's going to keep people guessing and he certainly kept to that so far.

BLITZER: Yes, he says, "I don't want to telegraph what I'm going to be doing. Just wait and see." All right. Guys, stay with us. Don't go too far away. Coming up, Vladimir Putin denounces the U.S. strike on Syria, calling it an aggression and a violation of international law. So what will Putin do next and how will the attack affect his relationship with President Trump?


[17:51:27] BLITZER: Moscow is reacting to the U.S. missile strike with anger, disappointment and threats. Brian Todd has been looking into this fort us. Brian, what does the Kremlin say?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the Kremlin is out and out furious, saying this airstrike put Russia and the U.S. on the brink of a military confrontation. Tonight, there is real concern about Vladimir Putin's next move and the potential for escalation.


TODD: Vladimir Putin, tonight, angered by U.S. airstrikes in Syria, calling them "an aggression in violation of international law." His foreign minister warning of the fallout to come.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I am particularly disappointed by the way this damages U.S.-Russia relations.

TODD: What little trust there was between the two nations now eroded. The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, saying the U.S. attack, quote, "was on a brink of military clashes with Russia."

OLGA OLIKER, CSIS RUSSIAN MILITARY EXPERT: He's saying this could escalate, and that, this could mean conflict between the United States and Russia, which is something that, I think, terrifies all of us.

TODD: A senior U.S official says the U.S. military gave their Russian counterparts one hour's notice of the airstrikes. Russian now says it's at least temporarily suspending use of a communications channel between U.S. and Russian forces aimed at reducing the risk of the two of them accidentally striking each other. Tonight, experts are also worried about a possible proxy war.

OLIKER: If the United States is going after the Syrian regime, which Russia supports, the risks go way up. Right. The United States attacking the bases where Russians are. Checking facilities where Russians are it's at war with people whom the Russians are backing and fighting shoulder to shoulder with.

TODD: Another sign of immense tension between Washington and Moscow tonight, a senior U.S. defense official tells CNN, the U.S. military is looking for any evidence that the Russian regime was complicit in the chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Syria in recent days, or if Russia had any knowledge of it. CNN has reached out, but so far, no response from the Kremlin. Putin's next move, a huge concern. Experts say he may escalate Russia's presence in Syria, send in new weapons, possibly launch more high profile airstrikes of his own, and he'll likely reinforce his backing of Syria's dictator.

After this airstrikes, how far do you think Vladimir Putin will go to prop up Bashar al-Assad?

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: I think, in terms of rhetoric, I think he'll go as far as he can possibly go. Militarily, in terms of committing troops, I would -- I would -- in significant numbers, I would doubt it that they have said they're going to put in additional anti-aircraft systems, that's a possibility.

TODD: Still, it's believed Putin is exasperated with his ally in Damascus.

TABLER: I think that President Putin is very frustrated with President Assad. His statements are quiet erratic. He also, during times when Russia has launch peace initiatives has gone out and rebuff those initiatives.


TODD: Analysts say Putin's support of Assad could now put Putin himself a greater risk. They say if Bashar al-Assad pulls another reckless move, it could draw the United States further into the conflict in Syria, and potentially put U.S. forces closer toward direct confrontation with the Russian military. Wolf, that is on a knife's edge tonight.

BLITZER: And Brian, does Putin have other risk at home if he keeps backing Bashar al-Assad?

TODD: He may very well, Wolf. Tony Blinken, our analyst and former deputy secretary of state, says Putin has to worry about brushback from Sunni Muslims inside Russia. There are many Sunnis in Russia's Caucasus region. Sunni Muslims are the majority of the people Assad has been killing in Syria. Tony Blinken says Sunnis in Russia may well see Putin as being too complicit with Bashar al-Assad and they could radicalize against Putin.

[17:55:10] BLITZER: All right, important part of this whole development. Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd, reporting.

Coming up, our breaking news. The Pentagon reports major damage to a Syrian airbase with 20 planes destroyed after President Trump launches a missile strike in response to Syria's chemical weapons attacks.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Attack on Syria. As the United States assesses the damage of -- from an overnight strikes. An administration official warns President Trump is prepared to do more. This hour, new details on the targets. The impact and what happens next after the first direct U.S. assault on the Syrian regime.