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Interview With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Syria Attack Fallout; White House: Trump Won't Telegraph Next Move on Syria; Senate Confirms Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court; Former Obama Adviser On Trump's Strike; White House Shake-Up Near; U.S.: About 20 Syrian Planes Destroyed In Missile Strike. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: New details on the targets, the impact, and what happens next after the first direct U.S. assault on the Syrian regime.

Message to Assad. After a chemical attack on his own people and a long, bloody civil war, how will Syria's strongman respond to punishment by America's president? I will ask Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who recently met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Russia's role. The Pentagon now investigating if the Kremlin was complicit in the Syrian chemical attack. Moscow is firing back, defending Vladimir Putin's ally Bashar al-Assad and accusing the U.S. of illegal aggression.

And on the outs? At one of the most crucial moments yet for the Trump presidency, we are learning that a major staff shakeup is becoming more likely. Tonight, who's on the short list for a possible shakeup?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I am Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We are following breaking news on the U.S. strikes in Syria.

Tonight, the White House says President Trump's first major military action is sending a clear message that Bashar al-Assad must stop using chemical weapons. The Pentagon says it struck the same air base Bashar al-Assad used to launch a deadly nerve gas attack. We are told nearly 60 U.S. missiles severely degraded or destroyed their intended targets overnight.

Over at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley seemed to threaten additional military action, saying President Trump is prepared to do more if necessary. Russia's U.N. envoy responding by accusing the Trump administration of illegal aggression against's Moscow ally Syria.

Tonight, the Pentagon is investigating whether Russia was complicit, complicit in the Syrian chemical attack by possibly bombing a hospital in an attempt to destroy the evidence. The actions in Syria overshadowing President Trump's summit with the leader of China.

Tonight, the White House won't say if Mr. Trump now backs regime change in Syria. But his decision to order swift military retaliation clearly is a sharp policy reversal for the new commander in chief and a potential turning point for his presidency.

In the midst of all of this, a White House officials tells CNN the possibility of a major staff shakeup is becoming more likely, with speculation focused on chief strategist Steve Bannon. A source now says the situation is reaching "critical mass."

This hour, I will talk about the U.S. strike in Syria with Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who recently met with Bashar al-Assad.

And our correspondents, analysts and other guests, they are all standing by.

First, let's go to our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, with more on the strikes and U.S. Syria strategy -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, today, the Pentagon doing its first bomb damage assessments to look at the effects of this strike.

This is the Al Shayrat base here in Central Syria. This is a look at that base before the strikes there. This is a look after, the number of targets hit.

The Pentagon says 59 cruise missiles striking 59 targets on base. There was a 60th missile that went down in the Mediterranean. They launched another to replace that, destroying, they estimate, 20 Syrian aircraft and a number of hardened aircraft shelters, as well as weapons depots, ammo depots, fuel depots, and radar installations here.

I should note, what they did not strike are the runways here, those still operational and still usable. The focus was Syrian forces, although this is a base that's also been used by the Russians. Of course, it is the Syrians that the U.S. blamed for this attack. But now we know the Pentagon is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the chemical weapons attack as well.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week, specifically whether a Russian warplane dropped a bomb on a hospital treating victims of the attack five hours later, perhaps to destroy evidence.

The probe comes after President Trump ordered a barrage of missiles on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the deadly attack. The first U.S. military strike against the Assad regime in the country's bloody six-year civil war.

Today, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned of possible further U.S. military action.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.

SCIUTTO: The target of the strikes was Syria's Shayrat air base, launch point for the Syrian warplanes that carried out the chemical attack.


The Pentagon says 59 of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles severely degraded or destroyed their targets, including aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel and ammunition dumps and air defense systems.

The Pentagon estimates some 20 aircraft were destroyed, though video of the aftermath shows several shelters still standing and military aircraft undamaged. U.S. missiles left the runway intact and avoided chemical weapons storage to prevent civilian casualties.

And U.S. commanders warned the Russian military one hour in advance, to avoid accidentally striking Russian military personnel or assets. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's primary backer diplomatically and militarily, immediately declared the U.S. airstrikes -- quote -- "an act of aggression" that -- quote -- "dealt a serious blow to Russia-U.S. relations."

Syria, which says nine people were killed in the strikes, claimed the U.S. has undermined the fight against terrorism.

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

SCIUTTO: The march to military action took little more than 48 hours. The planning began Tuesday, the day the world saw the first images of victims, many of them children of the chemical weapons attack.

On Thursday, before President Trump sat down to dinner with the Chinese president, he met with his national security team to discuss military options, deciding then to order the strike that night.

At 8:40 p.m. Eastern time, the middle of the night in Syria, the attack began. Two U.S. warships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the USS Porter and the USS Ross, launched the 60 Tomahawk missiles towards the Syrian air base.

Trump sat through dinner alongside the Chinese president as the attack was under way. Then, just 35 minutes later, at approximately 9:15 p.m. Eastern time, the president's national security team briefed him on the mission's results.


SCIUTTO: This was, we should emphasize, Wolf, a very narrowly targeted attack.

One air base here to send a message in effect about the use in particular of chemical weapons. It did not affect really or significantly impact the Syrian military's capability to carry out war against its own people, keep in mind by conventional means.

And let's remember that's the primary means they have been using particularly with civilian casualties, including barrel bombs dropped from helicopters and et cetera. That, the Syrian military maintains -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thanks for that report.

Also tonight, the Trump administration says it's preparing to announce new sanctions against Syria in addition to the military strike, the White House calling the action ordered by the president decisive, justified and proportional.

Lets go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's with the president down in Palm Beach, Florida.

Jim, has the president gave any indications of what his next move or moves might be or his overall stance towards Bashar al-Assad?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They're not telegraphing their next steps, Wolf.

And White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says that is by design. The president is expected to remain here all weekend here in Florida, Wolf, and he will continue to receive updates on the situation in Syria after last night's missile strikes.

I did talk to a senior administration earlier today who said these missile strikes in Syria should not interpreted as the beginning of a wider campaign to take out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

I think that's why you have been hearing all day long administration officials using words like proportional and measured in talking about last night's strikes. We did hear from some of the president's Cabinet members late today, as you said.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters that the administration will be seeking new economic sanctions against Syria in the days ahead. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said they will be studying the Syrian's regime response to what happened last night to determine exactly what the administration should do next, Wolf.

BLITZER: All of this is happening, Jim, as there is now some serious talk of possible staff shakeup at the highest level of the Trump's inner circle. What are you finding out?

ACOSTA: Yes, it is pretty remarkable, considering what's happening this week, Wolf.

But publicly the White House is adamant no major shakeup is coming soon. But we have talked to multiple sources who tell us that much of the talk about a shakeup is centering on Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, two of the original members of this administration first named by President Trump.

Now, we should point out that both Priebus and Bannon -- and let's put this up on screen -- they both appear in that photograph taken in the secured room where the president was keeping tabs on the military operation in Syria.

Also sitting down at the dinner table with the Chinese president last night. This would be an odd time for the president to force them out. But I am told that talk of a shakeup inside the West Wing is reaching "critical mass."


Our sources are even naming some potential replacements for Priebus as chief of staff. But, Wolf, a senior White House official who I was talking to on the phone earlier today was adamant, saying all of this talk is wrong, calling it palace intrigue.

But it is clear, Wolf, the president's team is not all on the same page. All week long, we heard about sparring between staffers loyal to Stephen Bannon and those loyal to the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

And one side of that friction, Wolf, that I think is very important, Steve Bannon, we're told, was not in favor of these strikes in Syria. So, clearly, the president's team not on the same page, a lot of infighting, it sounds. And it's unclear how the president will sort it all out by the end of this weekend, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thanks very much, Jim Acosta down in Palm Beach, Florida, for us.

Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us, Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of the Armed Services Committee and Foreign Affairs Committees, served in the U.S. Army in Iraq.

She also met back in January in Damascus with President Bashar al- Assad.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: Aloha, Wolf. Good to talk to you.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this chemical attack. You tweeted about the attack and I will put it up on the screen. You tweeted this: "Whoever is found responsible, be it the Syrian government, al Qaeda or ISIS, all have access to chemical weapons, must be held accountable."

Who do you believe is responsible for that chemical attack that killed so many civilians, including so many children?

GABBARD: Here is the issue, Wolf, is what I believe, what you believe or others believe is irrelevant.

What matters here is the evidence and the facts. If President Assad is found to be responsible, after an independent investigation, for these horrific chemical weapons attacks, I will be the first one to denounce him, to call him a war criminal, and to call for his prosecution in the International Criminal Court, make sure that those consequences are there.

But the key is now with President Trump's reckless military strikes last night, it flew directly in the face of the action that the U.N. was working on at that time to launch an independent investigation to find out exactly what the facts are, who was involved and who was responsible, the appropriate consequences could be levied.

BLITZER: So, Congresswoman, when the Pentagon says it was the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad who was responsible and the secretary of state says that, the president says that, they all conclude that they have the evidence to back it up, they say Assad did it and his military did it, you don't believe them, necessarily?

GABBARD: Well, last time I checked, Wolf, Congress had the authority and the responsibility for declaring war, for authorizing the use of military force.

So, whether the president or the president or the secretary of state says that they have the evidence, the fact remains that they have not brought that evidence before Congress, they have not brought that evidence before the American people, and they have not sought authorization from Congress to launch this military attack on another country.

The fact is that the United States has been waging this war, this regime change war now, for years covertly through the CIA to overthrow the Syrian government. The result of this had been the suffering of the Syrian people, hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of refugees, and the strengthening of terrorist groups in Syria like al Qaeda and ISIS, whose goals is to overthrow the Syrian government.

So, this escalation that President Trump took yesterday in launching this military attack continues this illegal, unconstitutional war.

BLITZER: So, Congresswoman, are you saying when General Mattis, the secretary of defense, or General McMaster, the president's national security adviser, come to the president and they say here is the evidence, we now know for sure that the Syrian regime did this, here are the various military options to respond, and he gives the OK, you say you have doubts about these generals providing that kind of truth to the president?

GABBARD: Well, Wolf, I remind you about what happened before we launched an invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Then, Colin Powell and many others within the administration came to Congress, and came to the U.N. claiming they had the evidence proving that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We launched a completely destructive, counterproductive war based on that intelligence, which has now years later proven to be wrong.

We had leaders in Congress then who questioned that evidence that was presented and voted against that war because they were not convinced by the administration then saying that they had the proof necessary to launch this war.

So, Yes, I'm skeptical, because we have to take at a premium the cost of these wars, not only on the Syrian people and the people in the Middle East, but the cost of these wars here in the United States.


At a time where we don't have money to build the roads that we need here in Hawaii or in other parts of the country, why should we just blindly follow this escalation of a counterproductive regime change war, sending American taxpayer dollars on these failed regime change wars that we have seen too often, in Iraq, in Libya and now continuing in Syria.

BLITZER: Because the Pentagon says they have radar tracks, tracking, that shows that Syrian regime planes were in the air at the time of this attack.

They also say they have heat signatures showing that those planes dropped those chemical bombs in those areas where the civilians were exposed to that kind of nerve agent.

But what I hear you saying is, you don't necessarily buy that.

GABBARD: Well, once again, Wolf, all I am saying is that we have an executive branch of government and a legislative branch of government.

And we need to see the evidence. Congress and the American people need to see and analyze this evidence and then make a decision based on that whether or not an authorization of U.S. military force is necessary.

And what I am telling you is, that has not happened. I have not seen that independent investigation occur and that proof presented showing exactly what happened. And there are a number of theories that are out there on exactly what occurred that day.

BLITZER: You met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus this past January, just a little while ago.

Do you doubt, Congresswoman, that he is capable of launching a chemical attack on his own citizens? Because the Obama administration said he did it back several times in 2013 until the Russians came in and said they would try to destroy all of his chemical weapons stockpiles.

GABBARD: Again, this is not about what I believe or what I doubt.

What matters the most here are the facts. The American people deserve to see and know of the evidence and the facts before authorizing the continuation of this destructive, counterproductive, illegal regime change war.

Our interests, Wolf, must be on bringing about peace, that if we truly care and are compassionate for the Syrian people, these children and women and innocent people who are being most impacted by this war, we need to end this destructive regime change war, not escalate it, as the president has just have done through his illegal military strike launched last night.

BLITZER: Why did you meet, Congresswoman, with President Bashar al- Assad? You know you got a lot of criticism for going to Damascus and meeting with him. Why did you decide to meet with him?

GABBARD: You know, I went to Syria in the interest of furthering the cause of peace, to see and hear firsthand from the Syrian people how we can bring about an end to this counterproductive regime change war, something that I have been fighting for now as a member of Congress for years.

Whether we like it or not, President Assad remains the president of Syria. And in order to determine a negotiated outcome to end this regime change war that, again, has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of refugees, he has a part to play in bringing about that negotiated outcome.

We should not continue this counterproductive regime change war, overthrowing the -- to overthrow the Syrian government, first and foremost because it will be destructive to the Syrian people, just like we saw our wars in Iraq and Libya turned out to be worse off for the people of those countries.

And just like in those two countries, we are already seeing this war we have been waging for years has only proven to strengthen these terrorist groups like al Qaeda and like ISIS, who are trying to overthrow the government, so that they can walk in and fill that vacuum and take over all of Syria for their own nefarious means.

BLITZER: Who's responsible, Congresswoman, for the deaths of more than 400,000 Syrians, mostly civilians and a lot of children, elderly? Who do you blame for those deaths over the past six years?

GABBARD: There are a number of ways that you can point the finger, Wolf.

I am interested in finding the solution. And the solution is to end this counterproductive regime change war. The United States has been waging, along with allies, so-called allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, all seeking to overthrow the Syrian government.

We have been providing arms, funding, salaries, support, intelligence and other types of both direct and indirect support to armed militants within Syria who are working directly with al Qaeda, who are allied with terrorist groups like al Qaeda towards this end of overthrowing the Syrian government, all an action which has resulted in more chaos and suffering for the Syrian people, as well as counterproductive to our American national security interests by strengthening the very enemy that attacked us on 9/11. It makes no sense. And I have spoken to you before about my bill, the

Stop Arming Terrorists bill, that would put an end to this madness by prohibiting American taxpayer dollars from paying this support, for paying for this counterproductive regime change war.


BLITZER: But don't you believe Bashar al-Assad bears a lot of responsibility for the horrific deaths that have occurred in his own country, his regime, his military going out there and killing all these people?

Do you think, Congresswoman, he bears a lot of that responsibility?

GABBARD: There is responsibility that goes around, Wolf.

Again, my interest is in bringing about peace. Standing here and pointing fingers does not accomplish peace for the Syrian people. It will not bring about an end to this war. That's my sole focus and my interest, both for the United States and for the Syrian people.

And that's why it is so important, A, that we end this destructive, counterproductive regime change war, and that we work towards bringing about a peaceful negotiation, where the Syrian people can determine their own future for themselves.

BLITZER: You met with the president -- he was then the president- elect -- during the transition in New York. And then you went in January to meet with President Bashar al-Assad.

Did you convey any message to Bashar al-Assad from President Trump during your meeting in Damascus?

GABBARD: No. And any reports suggesting otherwise are complete bogus and fake news.

BLITZER: What was Bashar al-Assad's message to you, Congresswoman?

GABBARD: He talked about what was happening in his country, his interest in defeating ISIS, and talked about how to bring about an end to this war.

BLITZER: You have any regrets about going, because you have faced a lot of criticism, as I pointed out, since then?

GABBARD: No, Wolf, I have never made decisions based on fear of what might people think or what might be politically advantageous for me.

As a veteran, I have seen the cost of these wars, experienced them firsthand, seen the human cost in friends of mine who did not come home from the war in Iraq. I went to Congress promising my constituents, my fellow veterans and brothers and sisters in uniform that I would do all I could to prevent our country from making these kinds of disastrous and destructive mistakes again in the future.

I went to Syria with the focus and mission on peace, how we can bring about an end to this destructive regime change war. And I am continuing that fight today.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, we have got to take a quick break. But I want to continue our conversation.

Let's take the break. We will resume the discussion right after this.



BLITZER: We are told tonight that the Pentagon is adjusting its military operations in Syria to protect American forces on the ground, this in the aftermath of the U.S. strike designed to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime for a deadly chemical attack.

We are back with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who met with Bashar al- Assad in Syria back in January.

So, let me just button this up, Congresswoman. I take it you were deeply disappointed by the president's decision last night; is that right?

GABBARD: It made me sad and it made me angry to see that President Trump took this reckless action without really considering, frankly, the dire consequences.

You talked about it your report Russia's presence in Syria. There is no question that, by launching a military attack which is illegal and unconstitutional against Russia -- against Syria, for that matter, Syria is very closely allied with Russia. Russia has their military on the ground there.

So, what we are talking about here really is the very high potential for a direct military conflict between the United States and Russia, the two world's nuclear powers, risking, therefore, whether intentional or unintentional, nuclear consequences.

BLITZER: If the Pentagon were to show you, Congresswoman, hard evidence convincing you that Bashar al-Assad's regime launched these chemical attacks against these civilians and these kids, would you change your mind and say, yes, what the U.S. did with these Tomahawk missiles was justified?

GABBARD: No, Wolf, because escalating a counterproductive, destructive regime change war is harmful for the Syrian people and is harmful for the United States and our national security interest.

We need to learn our lessons from the past. In Iraq and in Libya both, these arguments were made for humanitarian reasons to go in and overthrow these dictators, to go in and launch these wars.

We have seen in both of those examples how the Iraqi people and the Libyan people have suffered far more as a result of our wars. More people have died. The countries have been destroyed, become failed nations, and counterproductive to our interest directly, terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda have only grown stronger and stronger, gaining footholds in these countries that they didn't have before.

So, for whether it is Senator McCain or President Trump or any of these other people who are advocating for an escalation of this counterproductive regime change war, they're not recognizing the obvious truth, which is that it will result in a worse-off situation for the Syrian people, more death, more destruction, more refugees, and will result in our enemy, terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, growing stronger.

BLITZER: If President Trump didn't act and more chemical weapons strikes were launched against Syrian civilians from that same air base, how would you feel?

[18:30:02] GABBARD: Look, we have got to look at the facts and understand exactly what happened.

You can talk about a number of hypothetical situations. The United Nations yesterday was debating and drafting and going through different amendments or resolution that would have immediately launched an independent investigative team into Syria to determine exactly what happened in that attack. And then, to have the evidence necessary to take something to the International Criminal Court, to actually prosecute President Assad if he was found responsible. We've got to be deliberative, and recognize the facts on the ground before determining what potential course of actions are available to us.

BLITZER: Congressman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, thank you so much for joining us.

GABBARD: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll get more reaction to the strike in Syria from a former National Security Advisor to President Obama, retiree General Jim Jones, is standing by live. And more on the possibility of a major shake-up of the White House's Senior Staff, who might be affected? Our correspondents and analyst are digging for new information, right now.


[18:35:49] BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news on the U.S. strike in Syria. Pentagon officials' dossier about 20 Syria planes were destroyed when American cruise missiles struck in airbase believed to have been used by the Bashar al-Assad regime to launch a deadly chemical attack. We're joined now by our retiree General Jim Jones, he's a formal National Security Adviser to President Obama, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. General, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Do you think President Trump has now developed his own red line, and has learned from the experiences of President Obama in failing to live up to that red line threat? JONES: I think so, I think that if nothing else, that's the moment of

clarity for the first time in several years of - I think the indecision in 2013, or the decision not to intervene in 2013 was a very big mistake, and it precipitated the decrease in the amount of influence and the respect of which we are held. And I think now, we're putting an end to leading from behind.

BLITZER: So, was that President Obama's mistake? He subsequently said, I went to Congress and asked for authorization; I didn't get that legislation.

JONES: Whatever the, whatever the cause was, our failure to enact - to act on the Presidential global decree, that a red line would not be tolerated that was made in 2012 and violated in 2013, and again in 2014, and again in 2015.

BLITZER: It sounds like the President of the Unite States, he could have acted without congressional laws.

JONES: I think so.

BLITZER: So he decided from whatever reason he did want to do and he authorized U.S. air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria but never against any targets from the Syrian Military regime.

JONES: Of course.

BLITZER: And you say that was a mistake.

JONES: I believe it was a mistake and I believe that Russia, in a period of nurture in vacuums of different previously exist because our historical position of leadership, that it caused many of our friends and allies in the region to question the commitment of the United States to their own security.

BLITZER: So President Trump has now for all practical purposes drawing his own red line of the Syrians used chemical weapons again. He's going to act again. Can he enforce that, is that realistic?

JONES: Well, I think where we are now, Wolf, is that -- I like the term measured response because I think it was. There are other things he could have done that will be far more damaging to Assad but I think the message has been sent. I think it - the collective of side of relief through it here around the gulf is that people - the leaders are particularly pleased with the fact that the President of the United States is far more deciding.

BLITZER: The U.S. friends in the region, whether the Emirates or the Saudi and the Jordan, they are all very pleased, these rallies. What about the Russians? They are not pleased at all. they've got a big stake in Syria right now. The Iranians do as well.

JONES: They are not pleased at all but I think that what's going to happen and the play out the next few days, is we are going to see where the Russians really are on this and it's going to take some - it's going to take some work but the Russians are signatories to the convention to CWC convention on using such weapons.

BLITZER: You know Pentagon now is investigating whether the Russians are actually complicit in launching those chemical airstrikes that killed many people.

JONES: Exactly. That's why I said --

BLITZER: If the Russians were involved in that, either complicit they knew about it they didn't stop it, what is the U.S. doing about that?

JONES: Well I think that's a game changer in terms of who's got the influence and they - in the Middle East. If they are in fact proven to be complicit, I think Mr. Putin is in for a very difficult time diplomatically around the world, because this is like horrific act. And if they were the first time, that might be one thing. But it's not. It's the fourth, it's the third or fourth time.

BLITZER: Did they think they can get away with it because of this earlier -- President Trump's earlier statements that the -- if the Russians were complicit together with the Syrian regime. Did they think that we are what? We can just get away with it?

JONES: I can't put myself in the Russian President's mind except that I do - I've listened to him talk in my days in the White House and I know that, you know, he very much uses the United States as a foil for his own ambition. But he's very opportunistic and he strikes and he moves where he perceives weakness. This demonstration has -- shows no weakness and a firm resolve and I believe that the steady decline of the steam and which the respect which the United States is held in the Middle East is now on the out swing.

[01:40:41]BLITZER: You were a retired four star General, you were Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and you were the NATO supreme ally Commander, National Security Adviser to President Obama. What are the options if you were asked that you would lay out for President Trump right now in Syria?

JONES: Well, again, this is my personal opinion but I think we have to see how Assad reacts and how Russian react and that's going to play out a little bit.

BLITZER: Brother, have a little water.

JONES: Thank you. But I do believe that there are - is a wider array of military options.

BLITZER: Take a sip and then we'll continue.

JONES: That the military option is not the only thing. I think that we should pursue a strategy that leads to abide by the ICC and labels Assad were criminals. I think we should obviously ramp up sanctions and if Russians proven to be complicit I would include them. And I also believe, that like in 2013, when some people suggests that a humanitarian safe zone, inside of Iraq with the coalition, international coalition force led by the United States, that probably and possibly could have mitigated the exodus of refugees into Europe. So I think Europeans have a stake in this because if this doesn't stop, the exodus is going to continue.

BLITZER: There is billions and millions of refugees. General Jones, thanks very much exactly for joining us.

JONES: My pleasure.

BLITZER: General James Jones, the former Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, that's his promise. Just ahead, more on the breaking news of coverage of President Trump's military action in Syria, would Hillary Clinton have done the same thing if she were President? And what kind of influence does the President Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, have right now, at this critical moment for the Trump's White House. Is it a shakeup in the works?


[18:47:17] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the White House says the president won't telegraph his next move on Syria after a swift and surprising decision to launch U.S. cruise missiles in a direct assault on the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Let's bring in our team of experts.

Gloria, let me start with you.

President Obama failed to enforce his own red line threat. He was widely criticized for that over the years. How much of that, do you believe, play into President Trump's decisions?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's kind of hard to figure it out, Wolf, because on the one hand, of course, I think that Donald Trump want to show there is a new sheriff in town. He was clearly moved by these pictures that he saw.

But back in 2013, he tweeted constantly that Obama should not go into Syria and he said and I am quoting him now, "We should stay the hell out, the rebels are just as bad as a current regime." And we know that there were horrific pictures back in 2013. So it's kind of hard to figure out how much Obama had to do with what Trump just did.

BLITZER: He was a private citizen and his supporters say then. Now, Peter Bergen, he's president of the United States, he has to make these decisions based on options, military options he's given by his secretary of defense, his national security adviser, among others.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, you know, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked, you know, what's going to change the future of your government, he said, "Events, dear boy, events."

And, you know, this was the first big international event and it demanded a response and I think the president made the right response. The question is, what is the strategy now? Because a cruise missile strike is not a strategy and we haven't heard really from anybody -- and, by the way, lay out a strategy is not telegraphing your future plans. I mean, it's much more about what is our actual game plan here and we have not heard that yet. I hope we will.

BLITZER: What should the strategy be, Phil Mudd?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think you got a tough question that the Americans won't want to face and the White House won't want to talk about it.

Let's look at the two pieces of this. Number one, if you want to destroy ISIS, you've got to end the civil war. Ending the civil war means you have to cooperate with the Russians that support Bashar al- Assad, who's a dictator. If you want to destroy Bashar al-Assad, you've got to have a civil war continue, that means a vacuum. A vacuum like what we've seen in Yemen, a vacuum like what we've seen in Libya. A vacuum means that ISIS will persist.

So, you make the choice. We support a dictator who slaughters people with chemical weapons but allows us to eliminate a vacuum and eliminate ISIS or we support the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad after the disasters of Libya, Yemen and the semi-disaster of Iraq and we determine the take out of Bashar al-Assad, whether or not the Russians wanted us to.

[18:50:02] Nobody in this country wants to have a reality check with the American people. But those are the only choices I see.

BLITZER: Gloria, just hours before the launching of these Tomahawk cruise missiles last night, Hillary Clinton spoke on this very topic at the Tina Brown Women in the World Summit. Listen to what she said.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfield and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.


BLITZER: She's going much further right now than the president did yesterday. He's not taking out the airfields. He's hitting some targets at one air base.

BORGER: Right. But she's also praised him. I mean, you know, honestly, I don't think that Donald Trump is looking for a lot of praise from Hillary Clinton and you just had John McCain.

John McCain is praising him. He hasn't exactly been close to this president, and, of course, John McCain, like Hillary Clinton would like to see more. John McCain would like safe zones, for example. He's always liked to arm the rebels, in addition.

But, you know, I agree with phil. I don't think we have sort of a next step here and I think you have to ask, what is the strategy? Because Donald Trump run on America first. Lots of conservatives are out there criticizing him saying this is not America first. This is not what we voted for. We should not have gotten involved here, and so, they want to know, as does the rest of the American public, what are the next steps, are there next steps or was this just a one-off?

BLITZER: President Trump had some words last night after the air strikes were unfolding. He did not say Bashar al Assad must go. Peter, does he need to say that?

BERGEN: You know, I've always thought that from a sort of tactical strategic point of view, saying Bashar al Assad must go is not that smart, because, you know, what options are you giving him? You know, there's a way to look at this a little bit different, which is to say Bashar al-Assad's regime is likely to stay and what we need to -- if we're going to come to any solution, Assad eventually must go, but the next step is for the regime to stay in some shape or form, Assad to be gracefully shown the exit.

But if you make that a demand right at the beginning, I mean, that's a non-negotiable demand. I mean, Assad is not going to say yes to that. So, I don't think there's any reason to say is that at the outset. It doesn't help the actual situation.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, so many people are saying, not only must he go, he must go before an international war crimes tribunal and charged with war crimes and executed. You've heard that, Phil?

MUDD: Yes. And I think Peter's right. I think people who say that are dead wrong. People will send hate mail, I don't care.

Here's the bottom line, if you want the civil war to continue, 400,000-plus people have died in Syria. The president of the United States rightly talked about the tragedy of children and infants dying. How many more do you want to die in a civil war?

If you want that to happen, that means you're going to support the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. We saw tht in Libya, as I mentioned, in Yemen, in Egypt. What happened? Not only did we see disasters in those countries, and at least one, that is Egypt, we saw the return of a dictator.

If you want security for people and if you want ISIS to return, you're going to have to deal with a dictator. And I think our insistence on ousting Assad means that we think the civil war should continue. I don't buy it.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, everybody, because there's a lot more coming up. What's President Trump's next move in Syria? Reaction and some concern tonight in Congress.

We'll be right back.


[18:58:13] BLITZER: A big victory today for President Trump. The Senate confirmed his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, mostly along party lines. The vote came after Republican this week changed Senate rules to break a Democratic filibuster.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly. Phil, what kind of impact could the so-called "nuclear option" have on

the future to have U.S. Senate?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, as one senior GOP aide put it best, probably it's a good thing that lawmakers are leaving for a two-week recess. They need some time to cool off after what was a turbulent and anger-filled week.

One of the big questions, though, is, how quickly they can come back together? The first week they come back from that recess, they have to agree and pass a spending bill just to keep the government open. The biggest question becomes, Wolf, when Republicans have a piece of legislation, an ideologically, they are very determined to pass and it gets blocked, will all of a sudden, the legislative filibuster be on the table?

Now, Senate Majority Leader has made clear that's not an option. But Senator Susan Collins gathered 60 signatures from her colleagues to make clear that isn't on the table. Senators are very worried, Wolf, about that slippery slope.

BLITZER: You're on the Hill right now. Is there any sense that there will be legislation authorizing the use of military force in Syria?

MATTINGLY: Well, there's no question there's a lot of talk. And there's kind of an acceptance that it is Congress's responsibility if there is an expansion in Syria. But, Wolf, you know quite well, President Obama tried to get an authorization of use of military force to move forward and it didn't go anywhere. Several senators have tried to do the same thing. Several members of the House have tried to do the same thing.

Politically, it's a very difficult debate. It's a very difficult vote, and as we've seen, it's one members of Congress have avoided in large part since 2001 or 2002. So there's a lot of question right now if it will happen. It will be very dependent on what President Trump decides to do next.

But there's no question, those conversations are ongoing and it's something that there will be a lot of pressure to start on if they need it sometime soon, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Phil, thank you.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.