ANDERSON COOPER (CNN Anchor): Michelle Kosinski joins us now from Moscow. Does anyone think Russia is going to change its stance on supporting Assad? I mean, that doesn’t seem to be on the table at all.
KOSINSKI: I mean, we are not hearing optimism. And you’re right, Russia has given no indication of that. Even today, the Russian foreign minister launched into this long explanation of the dangers of regime change.
One state department official told me today that they see the chances of Russia backing away from Assad in the near term as less than zero. Putin is just too afraid of creating a power vacuum, that terrorists would take advantage of. Russia isn’t necessarily blind to Assad being a terrible choice. But at this point, they see Assad as the best if not the only choice.
So what the U.S. wants Russia to do is convince Syria to get on board, first, with the cease-fire then a political process. It’s just not clear to anyone how long that would take or to what extent Russia would even be on board. Anderson?
COOPER: Let’s bring in the panel. CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, CNN Global Affairs Analyst Tony Blinken and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, retired General Wesley Clark.
General Clark, you know, Donald Trump says NATO is no longer obsolete . . . he said obviously it was obsolete a lot on the campaign trail. Has anything really changed in the structure of NATO that suddenly makes it not obsolete? Donald Trump says they had conversations about it focusing on terrorism more than it never did that in the past, but it did do that in the past.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, we have been focus on terrorism. We carried that back 20 years ago as one of our focuses efforts. Osama bin Laden struck U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. We focused right (ph) along terrorism. So, it’s been a long focus on terrorism.
No, I don’t think NATO has changed fundamentally. But, I think it is important if NATO — all NATO nations will spend more on their own defense, follow through on more robust plans. NATO is working together to put together unmanned aerial vehicles, improve its cyber defenses, improve its strategic intelligence collection and sharing. These are all good things. They’ve all been in the mill for some time and it’s good to see NATO doing it.
COOPER: And, David Gergen, I mean, you should give President Trump credit during the campaign. He has been very consistent on calling for NATO countries to pay their fair share, 2 percent of their GDP on military expenditures. That’s clearly something he, you know, that’s a through line from the campaign to now.
But this idea that NATO is no longer obsolete, the only thing that’s changed is Donald Trump has now become president as opposed to a candidate when he could say whatever he wanted.
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And a number of changes in policy he’s been announcing over the last few days is very head snapping. Anderson, if you add in changes he just has made in the last 24 hours on domestic policy, reported by “The Wall Street Journal,” if you add those in with the foreign policy that you’ve been discussing tonight, you’re up to eight or nine changes in policy over the last 48 hours, 72 hours. You know, he changes policies more often than he changes clothes.
And in domestic policy, it doesn’t make that much difference, but in international affairs as Wesley tell you, we both tell you, it’s not only confusing, it can be very dangerous, because other countries — it may make assumptions about what you’re going to do and not be quite certain and do things threatening to you or take chances that they wouldn’t otherwise take if there were a steady hand on the tiller.
COOPER: Tony, it’s also one thing — I mean, you know, Donald Trump argued with great passion and vigor during the campaign his positions and seemed to hold firm positions, then to so completely reverse them with equal vigor without ever acknowledging that it is, in fact, a change in position, it does raise questions of a certain amount of hypocrisy.
I mean, everybody as president learns things they didn’t know as a candidate, but when you’re arguing them with equal vigor and pretending that it’s not a change, that days of the world has change around you that you’re not the one who changed, that just false.
TONY BLINKEN, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: It’s kind of impressive to see the enthusiasm with which he espouses diametrically opposed positions. And I think he is counting a little bit on some kind of collective amnesia among the American people. And it’s useful to keep reminding people that he said one thing, not only during the campaign, before the campaign, and now he’s in a totally different place.
Look, if part of this is simply what happens to any candidate who becomes president, which is their ideology or their campaign views suddenly confront reality and they adapt and they adjust, that can be a good thing. And I think some of the positions we’ve seen him take over the last few days are much improved over where he was. But at the same time, there is this sense of tremendous whiplash that everyone has.
And I also come back to something else that’s really important. Right now, we are trying to rally the world to deal with the chemical weapons problem in Syria and in particular to push back against this misinformation campaign that the Russians have been running and Assad has been running to disclaim any responsibility for the use of chemical weapons.
When we’re trying to bring the world together on that, our credibility matters, the president’s credibility matters. So to the extent he continues with his tweets to puts out false information, fake news, simply wrong facts, which unfortunately occurs on a daily basis, it undermines his credibility and does it undermines our ability as a country to rally the world on something as important as Syria’s chemical weapons.
COOPER: General Clark, what kind of a message do you think these 180 send to our allies and even our adversaries?
CLARK: I think the allies are concerned, because what they see in their own country is you see people preparing to make accommodations with Russia. When you discredit NATO and you discredit the European Union and you discredit your allies and you — OK, you may come back and flip-flop later on, but your views don’t have any consistency. You don’t sound reliable.
And anyway, this process has been under way for some months now. And what you find in the domestic politics in these countries is the people who had the best relationships with the Putin money, they are feeling stronger. And the people who had rested their careers and their lives on the reliable commitment of the United States, they are shaking.
And so as this plays out in the internal security services in business, in parliament, inside the military services, in these countries, we’re undercutting what we stand for, we’re undercutting the western alliance, our values and all that we’ve tried to achieve since the end of the Cold War in bringing democracy and stability and freedom to Eastern Europe.
COOPER: David, you know, some supporters of Donald Trump will say, look, it’s — you know, he says one thing as a negotiating tactic, but situations change and he is pivoting and that’s a good thing. Being flexible is good. You don’t want somebody who is so tied to their positions that they’re not flexible. To that, you say what?
GERGEN: Yeah. Well, I think that’s true in some instances, Anderson. Facts do change, the environment changes. Take the issue of currency manipulation by China. He went after China during the campaign because he thought they were holding down the value of their currency too much and hurting America.
And when he said that, the first few times, there was a lot of proof or a lot of evidence to support that proposition. Since then, they’ve been propping up their currency, getting it higher. And now, he’s no longer accusing them or he’s not going after them about currency manipulation. That is perfectly fair and to be respected in international affairs. But too often, the changes seem to come on almost on a whim.
Let’s take what he said here in the last 24 hours in talking to President Xi, he went in to talk to the president of China and said basically, I need your help and I assume you can take care of North Korea. He said after listening to Xi for 10 minutes, he decided, it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. It’s like much difficult than what I thought.
COOPER: Right. He said Xi basically gave him a 10-minute kind of course or lecture —
GERGEN: 10 minutes?
COOPER: — in the history of China and Korea, and North Korea. And after that, the president realized, oh, it’s more difficult than he had thought.
GERGEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s very stunning. I mean, candidates — serious candidates during the campaign get briefings from people like Tony Blinken and General Clark. And they sit down and they go through the books and they get a very clear understanding of it. They come out, enunciate policies and that’s what they follow through on. You make changes on the edges as you discover harsh reality. But nonetheless, you know, there’s a certain responsibility that goes with running for president and then being president of being on top of things.
COOPER: New developments now in a story that first broke last night. A report in “The Washington Post” that the FBI saw and received a secret FISA court warrant to conduct surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.
You know, Page, you’ll remember was one of five individuals that candidate Trump said advised him on foreign policy. Though, in fairness, it’s not really easy to determine just what his role really was. He may not really have had much of a role at all. Carter page has been rather cryptic or unclear in some of his public statements. Now the administration is downplaying the relationship entirely. The latest on it all from Jessica Schneider.
COOPER: And Jessica joins us now. Jessica, do we have any idea when Carter Page, Paul Manafort, any of President Trump’s other associates with ties to Russia might actually testify before Congress?
SCHEIDER: Anderson, all of them have offered, including Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But as for the timing, it’s still really limbo. Lawmakers have stressed they want to get all the necessary documents and information before they bring witnesses in.
Also, they can be fully prepared to ask the exact right questions. But as we saw, it’s evident that Carter Page is ready to talk and both Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort have made the same offer to intelligence committees.
Back now with our own panel of advisers, David Gregory, Matt Lewis, Kirsten Powers, Jeffrey Lord and Jen Psaki.
You know, I mean, Kirsten, it’s amazing all these new developments — I mean, with the kind of — again, there’s smoke around the Trump campaign.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
COOPER: Not a lot of details. Carter Page for one is such an ambiguous figure. It’s not even clear he ever really — I mean, he was never — you know, he claims he was in meetings with Donald Trump. But then it turns out what his definition of meetings were, he claims he was using the Russian term of meetings, meaning rallies. So — like he went to a rally, I think it was Bismarck, North Dakota.
POWERS: Yeah. I mean, he’s an interesting figure to say the least. There’s a lot of what he — a lot of what he has said about his connections that would even beyond the up and up, business connections, turn out to not even really have existed.
POWERS: And, also, I think that sort of the original scene here with the Trump campaign is that they just really couldn’t find anyone to be foreign policy advisors for the campaign. And when the first time Donald Trump mentioned this to “The Washington Post,” Carter Page, it was with five people who were equally undistinguished and people really didn’t even know who he was.
COOPER: Right, because — I mean, at that time the candidate Trump was under pressure to name a foreign policy team.
POWERS: Exactly, right. And so I think that that is sort of how he came to be part of the Trump campaign, but he wasn’t an official adviser. He wasn’t on the campaign. He wasn’t paid. And so, it’s not clear really how strong of a connection he had and it seems like he was really benefiting from the Trump connections. I’m not sure the campaign really was.
COOPER: All right. Matt, if all of this boils down to Carter Page, I mean, it — that’s a very — his actual connection to the Trump campaign is — seems tenuous at best. And his actual — whatever he did in Russia is unclear. But if he is the linchpin on this entire, you know, questions about — if that’s all there is, I’m not sure what that says about where the investigation is.
MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And I think part of the story, too, maybe that this — as Donald Trump becomes more hostile toward Russia, as we saw today, there may be less of an appetite, at least in the media, to cover the story of the alleged, you know, correspondence between the Trump campaign and Russia. It doesn’t fit the narrative now. Donald Trump is not going to be Putin’s, you know, toy or whatever. This Carter Page guy, it does seem like he’s a bit of a phony.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t sort of misrepresented himself to the Trump campaign as well as some of his business dealings. I still think if there is any scandal that may actually be legitimate, I think it’s much more likely to be Paul Manafort. I think that’s where the story probably goes.
COOPER: You know, David Gregory, I mean, it’s — yeah. What do you think?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think that right now, we’re trying to read from the margins in and see how much meat is there and we simply don’t know.
GREGORY: The media may lose interest, but it’s the FBI’s interest and the Senate committee principally, maybe the House committee will get its act together, but the Senate Intelligence Committee digging in on this. And I think it’s going to be more interesting to look at people who are definitely closer to the president, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, people who have those kinds of contacts with the Russians as distinct from maybe sloppiness within the campaign.
You saw incredible sloppiness from candidate Trump talking about Russia, inviting, you know, Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, when the hacking was done at the DNC, and a complete unwillingness to believe that they could be manipulated. So, that sloppiness compared to what the investigations will find —
LEWIS: I think that — the nefarious part of this would be if Donald Trump was working in league with Vladimir Putin and was his puppet and was being manipulated. That is clearly not happening.
COOPER: Well, we should point out, though, Jen, that Donald Trump still, you know, does not say anything critical of Vladimir Putin. Now, there may be very good political reasons for doing that. It may be the President of the United States doesn’t need to be calling out the president of Russia and escalating tensions all the more. But certainly, you can also point to that as he has gone out of his way. You know, Bill O’Reilly says Putin is a killer and President Trump says, “Well, there are many killers.”
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that’s true. I also think that tests cannot be whether or not Donald Trump is manipulated in the first 100 days that he’s in office. The question should be whether there is information they have, financial information, other information, ties between campaign aides that make him vulnerable, that make them vulnerable.
So, I think this focus on the Syria strike as proof. And Donald Trump’s son actually said this in a recent interview, proof that he is not a puppet of Putin is really overreaching on their part.
COOPER: We have breaking news right now that sheds new light on what the government knew about last week’s chemical attack in Syria and when they knew it. CNN’s Barbara Starr has details. She joins us now by phone. Barbara, what have you learned?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Good evening, Anderson. Well, what we’ve learned from a senior U.S. official is that the U.S. military, an intelligence unit, he does now have the communication intercepts of the Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for that Sarin attack.
Now, what the officials are emphasizing is, the U.S. had no knowledge ahead of time but they scooped up a lot of intercepts. And once the attack happened, they started going back through all the intelligence that they had and were able to isolate knowing the time, date and place of where the attack happened, then were able to isolate the intercepts they had on hand, look at them and get the evidence that, yes, the Syrians had been communicating amongst themselves about planning and preparation for the attack.
And, really, Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted at that yesterday when he talked about, you know, so-called iron clad evidence, if you will, that the Syrians had planned and executed the attack. So, the big unknown still remains, will they come up with similar intercepts or information indicating that the Russians were involved? They don’t have intercepts on that at this point.
One of the things they’re still looking very hard at is that there was a Russian drone flying over the hospital that got bombed about five hours after that drone flew. The theory is at this point the Russian drone flew, saw the people there being treated for their injuries and then an additional air strike was called in on that hospital.
President Trump talking about this today and saying that he wanted the Pentagon to look into it and find out exactly what went on, how complicit the Russians may have been in all of this, but it does look like they’re further able now, several days later, to put the pieces together.
Still, just emphasizing the U.S. didn’t know about it ahead of time. But as they went back and looked through what they had, they were able to get some of this additional intelligence.
COOPER: Barbara, just to be clear on that Russian drone. You’re saying that was after the chemical attack, but before there was a second bombing — conventional bombing after the chemical attack, is that correct?
STARR: Yeah. And to be clear, officials have talked about this over the last several days. So you had the initial dropping of a chemical bomb. People were injured. They try and go to a hospital, clinic area, to get treatment. That’s some of the video and pictures that the world has seen over the last several days.
That hospital, medical clinic, there was a Russian drone flying over it collecting intelligence. About five hours later, an unidentified aircraft comes in, drops a conventional bomb right in that area. The theory is the drone was photographing, collecting evidence, the pictures of the people being there being treated. Whoever calls in that second unidentified aircraft wanted the evidence destroyed —
STARR: — of injured people being there. And that drone that collected that evidence, the U.S. officials say was a Russian drone.
Back now with our panel. David Gregory, I mean the timeliness of this is interesting because Rex Tillerson in Moscow today was saying, you know, the U.S. is confident that Syria is behind this, that there’s indisputable proof on it. Russian — his Russian counterpart was saying essentially show us the evidence, you know, there needs to be a full investigation.
COOPER: Now, this information has been released.
GREGORY: Yeah. It’s kind of ironic that Russia’s, you know, stonewalling the Trump administration saying, “Sorry guys, fake news, nothing to see here.” The evidence I think is clear. The administration has asserted that. They’re going to keep hammering Russia on this, because it goes to a larger point, which is the Obama administration and Russia thought they had a deal to get the chemical weapons out of Syria. Well, apparently, they didn’t and why not?
And when it comes to keeping Russia accountable on this, they did know, they should have known. As the Secretary of State says, they’re either incompetent or they’re in on the deal. They’ve been propping Assad up. And so now you’ve got the president saying that we’re at an all-time low point. So I will be interested to see how the president negotiates this new relationship with Russia.
Putin is a guy who can play at lots of different levels. And I’m sure he will try to deal with President Xi did, which is explain to Trump the realities of the Middle East when and if they get together.
LEWIS: It’s not just Russia that was casting doubt on whether or not Assad was behind this gas attack. It was Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman who was publicly very skeptical of whether or no not Syrian is hot. And then there are people on the alt right, sort of —
LEWIS: — kind of like the holocaust deniers who were denying that Assad was behind this. So this is yet more–
POWERS: There are people in the freedom caucus doing it well, as well.
LEWIS: But was it real? That’s sad.
LEWIS: But the one thing I will say is, you know, I know there’s the whole controversy tonight. People say, “Tonight, Donald Trump became president.” But I will say, I do think this touched him. And the moral clarity that I’ve seen come out of President Trump in the last week, I think is commendable and I do think it impacted him.
COOPER: President Trump is refusing to answer whether he still has confidence in Steve Bannon, that’s according to Michael Goodwin of “The New York Post” who quoted the president saying, “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
On the reported of power struggle going on to the upper (inaudible) to the White House staff the president said Bannon is a good guy but “I told him to straighten it out or I will.”
Joining me now, Democratic Strategist Paul Begala and back with us, Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord. Paul, you said last night, you thought Sean Spicer would be gone by the 100 day mark as spokesman. Do you believe Steve Bannon’s days are numbered as well?
PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I don’t know. Trump is not loyal to anybody except Trump. But here is the difference, Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, most of the people there are there because of their relationship to Donald Trump. So if that relationship sours, they are expendable and are out the door.
Bannon is there not only because he played a critical role in getting the president elected, but he represents a constituency that alt right nationalist Breitbart kind of crowd, which is the heart of the Trump base.
You know, you have to be very careful who you hire in the White House, but you also have to be very careful of who you fire. And I understand, you know, the puppet often resents the puppeteer. Pinocchio is turning on Geppetto, I get that.
But, they got to be careful about running Bannon off, because he doesn’t need Trump to be wealthy and influential. He could fight a rear guard action against — from the outside against those guys.
And so, I think Lewis was quoting this before. LBJ was pondering whether to fire J. Edgar Hoover. And he said, “I’d rather have them inside the tent peeing out than outside the tent peeing in.”
COOPER: Jeffrey, I mean, the shift in the way the president is describing Bannon is interesting. We’ve seen it before with how the White House now describes Paul Manafort as somebody who sort of have very connections to the campaign. As a matter of fact, he ran the campaign. He was campaign chairman and was there for five months in different positions. Also, they talked about Michael Flynn in different ways as well. Is the writing on the wall for Bannon, you think?
LORD: Not necessarily. No. I mean, I know him a little bit. I like him a lot. I think he is a smart guy. And I’ve known, you know, a couple of these people not well but I’ve met them. They’re smart people.
And Donald Trump said, the president said it exactly right. They have to get their act together in essence or he will do it for them. The comparison here I use, of course, is to President Reagan who hated firing people.
He hated these kinds of things, which were endemic in the White House. So he basically would leave it to others, and it fell to Mrs. Reagan to sort of play this role.
Not so in the Trump administration. The president is Donald Trump. And he will have no hesitation to get in here if he feels he is being badly served and serving the president is job one of all of these folks.
COOPER: Paul, is this just the normal state of affairs and what happens in any new administration, what happens in the White House?
BEGALA: No, is a short answer. I’ve never seen it like this. There’s always turbulence, you know, I understand, but nothing like this. You know, President Obama said he wanted a team of rivals. Well, this is even worse than rival teams. This is the red wedding from “Game of Thrones”. It’s just a blood bath. There are only 80 days into this thing. We’ve never seen this level of acrimony within the White House this early on and the president does have to get his arms around this. And if it means firing people or changing jobs or bringing new people in, that’s fine. But this is unsustainable.