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Face the Nation April 9, 2017 transcript: Tillerson, McCain, Donilon

JOHN DICKERSON, CBS HOST: Today on FACE THE NATION: President Trump launches a military attack on Syria, but now what?

Following the horrific chemical attack that killed at least 80 Tuesday, a president who campaigned against impulsive action overseas changed his tone after Bashar al-Assad’s attack on his own citizens.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.


DICKERSON: The president took action a day later, ordering a missile attack on the Syrian military base where the sarin gas attack was launched.


TRUMP: As long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.


DICKERSON: It was a bold move, sending both a message of action to allies, wondering if Trump’s America first policy meant a new isolationism, and a confusing signal to those at home who elected him on that very sentiment.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.


DICKERSON: But what more?

We talk with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about U.S. foreign policy and whether the president’s concern for humanitarianism now extends to removing Bashar al-Assad.


DICKERSON: Is it a priority of U.S. policy to get him out of power?

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn’t changed. I think the president has been quite clear. First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS.


DICKERSON: Next up, a key Republican who says more must be done to stop the Syrian dictator’s attacks on his own people. Senator John McCain praised the president’s move, but said it is about more than just ISIS.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It is now vitally important we develop a strategy, we put that strategy in motion, and we bring about peace in the region. I believe that the United States of America can address both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum.


DICKERSON: Plus, the Senate goes nuclear in order to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court. We will have some thoughts about that, plus plenty of analysis on Syria, Russia, North Korea, and the week in politics.

It is all coming up on FACE THE NATION.

Good morning, and welcome to FACE THE NATION. I am John Dickerson.

Tensions are rising just about all over the world this morning. There were more airstrikes this weekend on in Khan Shaykhu in Syria, where the chemical attack occurred last week. And a U.S. Navy carrier group, the Carl Vinson, is moving closer to the Korean Peninsula.


DICKERSON: We want to welcome Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the broadcast.

Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us.

As a start, what message was being sent to the Syrian leader with the U.S. military action?

TILLERSON: Well, John, I think the president was quite clear in his statement that he made to the American people that Syria’s continued violations of U.N. resolutions and previous agreements that Syria had entered into regarding the chemical weapons accord would no longer be tolerated.

I think we have stood by and watched multiple weapon -- chemical weapon attacks by the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al- Assad. And this one, in particular, was the most horrific since the major chemical attack back in 2013. And I think that is clearly the message, is that the violation of international norms, the continuing ignoring of U.N. resolutions, and the continuing violation of agreements that they themselves entered into will no longer be tolerated.

DICKERSON: If Syria continues, though, on the other course it has been on, which is to attack with conventional weapons, barrel bombs and also block humanitarian aid, what is the message if they continue doing those things from the United States?

TILLERSON: Well, I think those continued actions by Bashar al- Assad clearly call into any question of him expected to have any legitimacy to continue as the leader of Syria.

I think the issue of how Bashar al-Assad’s leadership is sustained or how he departs is something that we will be working with allies and others in the coalition, but I think with each of those actions he really undermines his own legitimacy.

DICKERSON: Is it a priority of U.S. policy to get him out of power?

TILLERSON: Our priority in Syria, John, really hasn’t changed.

I think the president has been quite clear. First and foremost, we must defeat ISIS. And I would say that the military progress both in Syria and in Iraq has been remarkable since President Trump’s inauguration. We have continued to liberate areas.

We are making tremendous progress in liberating Mosul in Iraq, working with coalition forces, working with allies. And we are moving to -- position to liberate Raqqa, and to continue to contain ISIS and the threat that ISIS really does present to the homeland and to other homelands of allies around the world.

DICKERSON: So, in terms of President Assad, you had said that there has been no change in policy as a result of this attack.

So, is still true then that his fate is to be determined, as you said previously, by the Syrian people?

TILLERSON: Yes, John, I think, you know, obviously, the United States’ own founding principles are self-determination.

And I think what the United States and our allies want to do is to enable the Syrian people to make that determination. And we have seen what violate regime change looks like in Libya and the kind of chaos that can be unleashed and indeed the kind of misery that it enacts on its own people.

I think what we are hopeful is, through this Syrian process, working with coalition members, working with the U.N., and in particular working through the Geneva process, that we can navigate a political outcome in which the Syrian people, in fact, will determine Bashar al-Assad’s fate and his legitimacy.

DICKERSON: The problem...

TILLERSON: I think the question of how his criminal actions and -- are dealt with is something that will be a part of that process.

DICKERSON: The argument that people make for more intervention by the United States is that the Syrian people are in no position to make a determination about the president, because he is bombing a lot of them, millions of them have had to flee the country, and that he has created a condition where there is no institution that can remove him from power.

And while the U.S. pursues its interests, he continues to do all of the things that the administration has now said are so morally reprehensible.

TILLERSON: Well, I think, John, it is important that we keep our priorities straight.

And we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS, that, by defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we have now eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat, not just the United States, but to the whole stability in the region.

And once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria. We are hopeful that we can prevent a continuation of the civil war, and that we can bring the parties to the table to begin the process of political discussions.

Clearly, that requires the participation of the regime, with the support of their allies. And we are hopeful that Russia will choose to play a constructive role in supporting cease-fires through their own Astana talks, but also ultimately through Geneva. And if we can achieve cease-fires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process.

DICKERSON: This was the first crisis that started in and was carried through on this president’s watch. Can you give us a window into that and what the president’s attention was focused on?

TILLERSON: Well, the president, I would tell you, was very thoughtful in terms of the decision to take the strike.

He requested immediately from the Defense Department and our military planners multiple options and requested of the State Department, working with the National Security Council, diplomatic options.

We had multiple meetings to discuss those options. He asked a number of questions, probing those, so that they were fully developed. And then we had two meetings down -- once we arrived in Mar-a-Lago, in which ultimately the president made the ultimate decision.

So, I think, John, yes, I would describe the president’s leadership in this issue was extraordinary in terms of the way he conducted those meetings. He clearly wanted everyone to express their personal views around the options. He invited everyone to express those openly, without reservation, so that he could consider all of those options.

And he did consider them, and then ultimately made the decision. So I think it was a clear demonstration of his leadership, but also a clear demonstration of how well the team of people that he has put in place are able to work together to arrive at an answer that is clearly the right one.

DICKERSON: Senator Marco Rubio made a charge this week. He accused you of -- quote -- “nodding to the idea that Assad was going to get to stay in some capacity.”

And this was referring to your remarks about the Syrian people picking whether he could stay or go. And then Senator Rubio said it was no coincidence that then President Assad used chemical weapons.

What is your response to that?

TILLERSON: I think that is a regrettable comment on the part of Senator Rubio.

DICKERSON: And do you think there was nothing that the U.S. did in the statements either that you made or that the U.N. ambassador made saying that it was not a priority to get him out, that that had no effect on his thinking?

TILLERSON: This was -- John, this was a continuation of a series of chemical weapons attacks by Bashar al-Assad. This was not the first.

As you well know, there were two similar attacks in March, March the 25th, March the 30th, in Hama. So this was yet another instance of Bashar al-Assad’s continued violation of the chemical weapons agreements.

DICKERSON: Russia said that they don’t believe that this is the way that the United States sees it.

Is that because Russia might have been involved in this chemical weapons attack?

TILLERSON: Well, I think the Russians have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar al-Assad’s behavior.

The alternative explanation that the Russians put forth is simply not plausible. Not only is it not plausible. We know from our own information and open-source information that their alternative explanation is simply not credible.

So, there is no question as to who is responsible for these attacks. It was Bashar al-Assad. And I think the Russians need to think more carefully about the commitment they made under the chemical weapons agreements to be the guarantor that these weapons would be seized, they would be removed, they would be destroyed.

And since they are Bashar al-Assad’s ally, they would have the closest insight as to their compliance. So, regardless of whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime, you would have to ask the Russians that question.

But, clearly, they have failed in their commitment to the international community.

DICKERSON: Given how strongly the president acted with respect to Syria using those chemicals weapons, though, isn’t it a rather important point whether the Russians were actively engaged in the military chemical weapons use that the U.S. government just launched a military strike over? Isn’t that a crucial question?

TILLERSON: Well, to our knowledge, we do not -- we do not have any information that suggests that Russia was a part of the military attack undertaken using the chemical weapons.

DICKERSON: The U.N. ambassador said, how many children have to die before cares? Is that a message you will take to Moscow in your visit next week?

TILLERSON: Well, again, it is clearly the message is, Russia gave certain assurances under the chemical weapons agreement in 2013 and in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions that they would be the guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Russia has failed in that commitment, and the result of their failure has led to the killing of more children and innocents.

DICKERSON: Do you worry about Russian retaliation for the U.S. military actions?

TILLERSON: I see no reason that there would be retaliation, since the Russians were never targeted in this particular strike. It was a very deliberate, very proportional and very targeted strike undertaken in response to the chemical weapons attack, and Russia was never a part of the targeting.

DICKERSON: There is a channel of communication between the U.S. and Russia, both flying over Syria, so they don’t bump into each other, if nothing else. Is that line of communication still open?

TILLERSON: As far as I know, the line of communication continues to be open. And the battlefield commanders are able to communicate with one another.

I am aware that there have been certain public statements made out of Moscow, so we will just have to see and may have to ask the military people.

DICKERSON: You met with president of China, along with the president, there in Florida. What message did the Chinese take from U.S. action in Syria?

TILLERSON: Well, the president, I think, very thoughtfully and rightfully, did notify Presidency Xi Jinping at the end of the dinner on the evening of the attack.

I think, out of respect for President Xi, he wanted to explain to him the rationale for the U.S. action, why it was taken, and why he felt it was necessary. My understanding -- I was not standing nearby, but my understanding is that the President Xi said, well, no one should kill children.

The Chinese have since issued their own statement on the attack itself.

DICKERSON: The president also said about North Korea, “If China doesn’t ask” -- “act” -- pardon me -- “then -- in North Korea, then we will.”

Did the Chinese get that message from this meeting over the weekend?

TILLERSON: I can tell you that both the president -- presidents had extensive discussions around the dangerous situation in Korea.

They had a very lengthy exchange on the subject yesterday morning. I think it was a very useful and productive exchange. President Xi clearly understands and I think agrees that the situation has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.

And, indeed, the Chinese even themselves have said that they do not believe the conditions are right today to engage in discussions with the government in Pyongyang. And so what I think we are hopeful is that we can work together with the Chinese to change the conditions in the minds of the DPRK leadership, and then at that point, perhaps discussions may be useful.

But I think there is a shared view and no disagreement as to how dangerous the situation has become. And I think even China is beginning to recognize that this presents a threat to even -- to China’s interests as well.

DICKERSON: All right, Secretary Tillerson, we will have to leave it there. Thanks so much for being with us.

TILLERSON: It is my pleasure, John.


DICKERSON: We turn now to Senator John McCain, who joins us from Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Senator, I want to ask you. You would like the administration to take a series of steps in Syria to knock out the Syrian air force, set up safe zones. It appears from Secretary Tillerson that the administration is not going to do anything more than the actions it already has taken.

What is your reaction to that?

MCCAIN: Well, I think what the president did was an excellent first step and it was a reversal of the last eight years.

And I think it was important. But it is now vitally important we develop a strategy, we put that strategy in motion, and we bring about peace in the region. And that obviously means that there has to be a cessation of these war crimes.

John, dropping, using chemical weapons is a war crime, but starving thousands of people in prisons is also. Barrel bombs which indiscriminately kill innocent civilians, precision strikes done by Russians on hospitals in Aleppo are war crimes as well.

So there’s a lot of war crimes that are taking place. And another area -- aspect of this that I do not agree with the secretary is that you have to just concentrate on ISIS.

We will take Mosul. We will take Raqqa. And we better have strategies as to how to handle those places once we have won it. But they are not disconnected from Bashar al-Assad and the al Qaeda and the war crimes that have been taking place.

You can’t -- to a large degree, Bashar al-Assad, by polarizing the Syrian people, have also given rise to ISIS and al Qaeda. So they are both connected. And I believe that the United States of America can address both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum.

We have the capability to do both. And, yes, we want a negotiated settlement, but the only way that that will happen is if it is not in their interests to continue what they have been successful at for over eight years. And that is why I thought, symbolically and psychologically, the president’s action was very important, but now we better follow it up. And, by the way, we should have cratered the runways.

DICKERSON: Just to follow up on that, Senator, Secretary of State Tillerson said when I listed those other parts of Syrian efforts that you mention, he said that America needs to -- quote -- “keep its priorities straight and focus on ISIS.”

But your argument is that taking care of the humanitarian actions that Bashar al-Assad is -- is taking, that that is a part of the fight against ISIS as well.

MCCAIN: I think they are totally connected.

And also, when you see these crimes that are being committed, they are horrifying. John, I also believe that a grieving mother whose child has been killed isn’t too concerned whether it is a chemical weapon or a barrel bomb. He is still slaughtering people. And we may stop the chemical weapons.

But we have also got to stop the other indiscriminate, inhumane war crimes that are being committed as well. And that means, obviously, trying to set up some kind of safe zone, so that these refugees can have a place where they can be. And, also, that would help with the refugee flow issue.

DICKERSON: Senator, you said you had wished that they had cratered the runways.

Based on your assessment of the damage that was taken from the U.S. military action, what kind of a signal do you think that sent to President Assad?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the fact that we acted was very important, and I support the president’s action.

And I have been told that there was some recommendations to take out all six places that the Syrian air force operates out of. But now that they are flying again, basically, within 36 hours is not a good signal.

But I would point out, taking out their -- all their support facilities doesn’t let them fly with any consistency. But it -- the signal that they are able to fly almost right away out of the same facility indicates that I don’t think we did as thorough enough job, which would have been cratering the runways.

And somebody will say, well, then they can fill in the runways. Yes. And we can crater them again too.

DICKERSON: Do you think the administration did anything to encourage this behavior by the Syrians by saying that the Syrian people would determine Assad’s fate, and that removing him is not a priority, things that were said before the use of chemical weapons?

MCCAIN: I think it probably was partially to blame.

And I -- and Secretary Tillerson basically is saying the same thing, after kind of contradicting himself and then saying the same thing, argues vigorously for a plan and a strategy.

As I said, again, taking this action, I support, and was important, but we have got to have a strategy and a plan to follow through.

Just a one-time deal is not going to be productive, and saying we are only going after chemical weapons areas ignores the enormity of the problem. A very small percentage of the people who have been slaughtered in Syria have been slaughtered by chemical weapons.

It has been done by barrel bombs and indiscriminate killing and all the other war crimes that have been committed.

DICKERSON: A domestic question to end, Senator.

The Senate got rid of the filibuster for judicial appointees. You in the past had kept the Senate from going down that road. You tried again this time. There were no takers. What does that say about the Senate?

MCCAIN: The Senate, like the nation, has become much more polarized in recent years. And I regret what we did.

We have shattered really 200 years of tradition in the United States Senate. There were a number of senators that wanted to get together again, but it wasn’t enough. And I think both parties will rue this day, because now when it requires 51 votes, it will drive to more liberal judges when the Democrats have the majority and more conservative judges when Republicans do.

And I am not sure that is good for America or our judiciary system.

DICKERSON: Senator McCain, thanks for being with us.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

DICKERSON: And we will be back in a moment.


DICKERSON: Veterans of the United States Senate I talked to this week described the decline of the institution like the slow fade of a neighborhood restaurant.

First, the owner died. Then the food got bland. And then they stopped serving brunch. By the time the place closed, no one was surprised.

This feeling was caused by the partisan impasse over the Supreme Court. Republicans changed the Senate rules to confirm Neil Gorsuch on a simple majority vote. The minority can no longer block with a filibuster.

Called the nuclear option, the move was once considered unthinkable; both sides would work out an alternative to avoid it. Senators now say it was inevitable. The body designed to resist splitting along party lines is stuck in that condition. No side can disappoint their base, say senators.

Voters and interest groups treat everything as a test of purity. This builds on itself. Partisanship stalls Congress, leaving issues to be decided by the courts. So, partisans want to control the courts too. Each side publicly blames the other for this judicial tit for tat, though, privately, senators acknowledge their leaders are, or have been, to blame for the escalation.

It still takes 60 votes to pass legislation, but senators expect that to change too. That could be good. A majority threshold would get more done, and lawmakers couldn’t blame the filibuster for not acting.

But this is only an improvement if the senators are not so driven by partisans. At this point, I am required to tell the story about George Washington explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was created to be a cooling saucer to the hot legislation that comes from the House.

It still can be, but, more and more, there are weeks like this one, where it acts not like a saucer, but a thermos.

Back in a moment.


DICKERSON: You can keep up with the news of the week by subscribing to the FACE THE NATION Diary podcast. Find us on iTunes or your favorite podcast platform.

If you can’t watch us live, FACE THE NATION is now available on CBS All Access, as well as our Web site,

Plus, we are available on video on demand on your video cable system.

We have a lot more ahead, though, so stay with us.


DICKERSON: We will be right back with a lot more FACE THE NATION, including some analysis on the administration’s foreign policy and our political panel.

Stay with us.



For some analysis of the growing international tensions in Syria, Russia and North Korea, we turn to President Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, Fran Townsend, who was homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush and is now a CBS News senior national security analyst, and Mike Morell was deputy director of the CIA and a CBS News senior national security contributor.

Mike, I want to start with you. What did the president accomplish with his attacks in Syria?

MIKE MORELL, CBS NEWS SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: John, I think he accomplished two things. One is, I think he sent a very strong message to the Syrian president that he cannot use chemical weapons, that he cannot use sarin in the future. And I imagine that that will stick. I don’t think Assad will use sarin again. I think that is -- deterrence worked here.

I think the second message that was sent was to our other adversaries, primarily North Korea and Iran, that the United States, that this president, will back up red lines, that he will protect the interests of the United States with military action, if necessary. It’s a very, very powerful message as well.

I think what wasn’t accomplished here was as important as what was. And what wasn’t accomplished is, we did not deter the Syrian president from continuing the war against his own people using conventional weapons.

DICKERSON: Tom, what, now that this has happened, can the president do to take advantage of this? Is there a -- is there negotiating leverage that’s gained here in Syria?

TOM DONILON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Some, but I want to underscore what Michael said here, is that this is a very narrow, targeted effort aim as deterring and punishing the use of chemical -- chemical weapons. It does -- it does not fundamentally change the dynamics on the ground or the dynamics in -- in the civil war in Syria. And it’s important -- that’s important not to overstate what was -- what was accomplished. Indeed, we did set a line, enforce it. That’s important to do. But we really haven’t changed the underlying dynamics on the ground in Syria.

He certainly can take advantage, as I think Secretary Tillerson will in his trip to Russia on Tuesday of the coming week, to try to use this as some leverage in terms of the discussions there, and really importantly in terms of holding the Russians accountable.

DICKERSON: Fran, there -- in terms of this very limited message they were trying to send, Secretary of State Tillerson, excuse me, seemed to be really anxious to show just how limited it was. And when I asked him about the Assad regime, he basically said that’s going to be up to the Syrian people, as he had before these attacks started. But the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said, quote, “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as head of the Syrian government.” There seemed to be a split between them there.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CBS NEWS SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: There does, John, and it -- I -- but I think what’s important to focus on here is, you know, if you your, if your priority is getting rid of ISIS and defeating ISIS in Syria, let’s be clear, you know, the Russians have not -- nor the Syrian government of Assad have been our allies in that. They’ve -- they’ve done virtually nothing to defeat ISIS. They focused, as Mike points out, on sort of their own people and the internal civil war there. And so, frankly, in some respects, if you want to get the level out of the missile bombing in Syria, if I were Secretary Tillerson, I would not be going to Russia. Boris Johnson of the U.K. canceled his trip. If you don’t want to get drawn in, then you need to build a coalition. I’d be going to the Arab Gulf. Our Arab allies during the Obama administration offered military assistance to remove Assad from power, they weren’t taken up on it then. Now is the time to go and build that coalition in the Arab gulf and have them take on and follow on to what our attacks were to try and leverage them.

DICKERSON: Mike, what did you make of Secretary Tillerson’s very clear two-step process? Get rid of ISIS. That’s the priority. He almost sounded as if dealing with Assad on the barrel bombs and the humanitarian blockage was a distraction from ISIS. How do you see those two matching up?

MORELL: Right. So I think Senator McCain is exactly right. These are linked. You cannot ultimately defeat ISIS without getting rid of Assad. He has no credibility with the largest percentage of his population, which are the Sunnis. He will never get it back. He will never get their -- their -- their -- their support back. And as long as that’s the case, as long as he’s there, that will feed extremists, whether it’s -- whether it’s this ISIS or whether it’s ISIS 2.0 down the road, Assad has to go. They are connected.

DICKERSON: Tom, the secretary of state is on his way to Moscow. Talk about Moscow and its role here and then also the larger brief he’s got to carry with him to Moscow as he meets with Russia.

DONILON: Yes. Fran makes a good point with respect to our relationship with Russia at this point. A couple of points. One is -- and we’ve been slow to realize this, I think, in the United States, Russia is in an actively hostile posture towards the United States and the west right now. Undertaking direct efforts to undermine the west and undermine the United States around the world, whether it be in Syria, in Ukraine, Crimea, up against NATO, Afghanistan with the support of the Taliban we’ve seen -- we’ve seen reports. So it’s a very difficult time in this -- in this relationship.

Second, I think if I were Secretary Tillerson, I would not go on this trip unless I were going to see Vladimir Putin. I don’t think, frankly, that -- and we’ve learned this through a lot of experience that conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov really get to much -- much of anything. I think you have to be able to talk directly to -- to President Putin and -- and -- and Secretary Tillerson knows -- know Putin. So it’s a broader conversation. You know, they’ll certainly have the conversation about Syria and what they might do going forward, holding Russia accountable, but we have a broader conversation to have with Russia about really the kind of actively hostile posture we have, vis-a-vis Russia and the world right now.

DICKERSON: Fran, do you think -- you mentioned that Tillerson shouldn’t go to Russia. Do you think he should have -- should not have gone as an act of punishment? Because essentially he’s saying the Russians were complicit in basically a war crime. I mean shouldn’t the Russians be punished, I guess, if you’re going to -- on the one hand say we’re going to punish somebody for a war crime and then you say somebody’s complicit.

TOWNSEND: Right. Well, I actually don’t think Secretary Tillerson went as far as you just did. I don’t think he said -- he said they were either complicit or incompetent, basically, and he didn’t say it. I think he should have. I think it’s clear they were on the Shayrat Air Base with the Syrian, co-located. There’s no way they were incompetent. They were certainly complicit. And that that means they’re complicit in a war crime. And so I do think both because they were complicit in the chemical weapons attack and because there have been reports now that Vladimir Putin, to Tom’s point, has said he will not see Tillerson. And so the combination of those things makes this trip to Moscow, in my judgment, a total waste of time. You might as well actually try to build a coalition that can do something to end this civil war.

DONILON: Can I talk about the war crime (INAUDIBLE) for just 30 seconds.


DONILON: With the point that Senator McCain made. There needs to be a lot more focus right now in terms of accountability and gathering evidence and pushing forward on war crimes prosecutions in this -- in Syria, including potential Russian complicity.

TOWNSEND: That’s right.

DICKERSON: Michael, let me switch to North Korea with you. Where do things stand with North Korea? It seems to have gotten just a lot hotter, obviously, their actions, but also the rhetoric coming from the administration?

MORELL: John, there’s a -- there’s a bit of a misperception in the media that -- that -- that I want to clear up. There’s a perception in the media that the threat is down the road, right? That it’s 2020 or 2022 and they’ll have a deliverable nuclear weapon. They have that now. They have nuclear weapons that work. They have short- range and -- and medium range ballistic missiles that we know that work. They have two variants of an ICBM that they have not tested, that they’ve deployed one of those.

The assessment of the United States is that they can mate a nuclear weapon to a missile. Both -- both the former DNI said that and the commander of NORAD said that. So the threat is now. And there’s three -- three threats. One is use, one is possible sale to a third party, and -- and one is a loose nuke scenario if the regime ever collapses, what happens to those nuclear weapons? So the threat is now.

DICKERSON: Tom, what -- what does the president do? What are his options if that’s the case?

DONILON: Well, a couple of things. First of all, every single indicator with respect to North Korea, I think is negative right now in terms of the numbers of weapons, as Michael said, the capability, and in terms of developing over a course now of missile testing the ability to strike the United States or its allies. In this proliferation point is really important. I think it underscores, well, it’s not just a direct threat issue, it’s a proliferation issue.

Going forward, it needs a lot more attention. One is that I do think that we can significantly increase pressure on North Korea through economic and other kinds of pressure. I to -- you know, we -- Michael and I worked very closely together on the Iran sanctions efforts here. We do not currently have in place -- we haven’t had in place for a bit -- a relevant period of time here the kind of regime threatening economic sanctions that I think you could put in place. Second, I think we need to continue to build up our defenses and our presence in the region. Third, I think there is importantly a conversation to be had with the Chinese about the various scenarios on the -- on the Korean peninsula going forward here. I don’t think that took place in Florida this -- this -- this past week, but we really should have that conversation with -- with China. And fourth, to really communicate that, in fact, all options really are on the table with respect to dealing with this problem.

DICKERSON: All right, we’re going to have to end it there. Thanks to all of you. And we’ll be back. These aren’t going away. And we’ll be right back with our political panel in a moment. Stay with us.


DICKERSON: And we’re back with our political panel.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and deputy editorial page editor for “The Washington Post.” Ramesh Ponnuru is the national -- is with “The National Review.” Ed O’Keefe covers politics for “The Washington Post” and is now a CBS News contributor. And Michael Duffy is deputy managing editor for “Time” magazine.

Michael, let me start with you. What did we learn with the Syrian operation about President Trump?

MICHAEL DUFFY, “TIME” MAGAZINE: I think we learned a couple of things, John. First, he was able to move quickly. The whole thing from the original attack to the U.S. counterattack, less than two days and 70 hours or something like that. And in a limited -- a very limited way. That may have surprised some of his critics on the left.

At the same time, he was able to, in opposition to his campaign rhetoric and much of his tweeting over the last years, go against his sort of isolationist perspective and actually intervene in a complicated situation overseas. What happens next is just as complicated.

But he did it at a time when he was hosting a visit from the largest -- you know, the leader of the largest country in the world. That had to be interesting for the Chinese to watch. And it certainly sent a signal, I think, not only to that, his guests, but also other leaders around the world that perhaps they had to recalculate how President Trump might think about his role overseas. And, finally, he did this at a -- in a way that garnered bipartisan support and I think then encouraged the public to follow.

DICKERSON: Ramesh, picking up on Michael’s point about what a departure this was. So we have neoconservatives in the -- in the conservative ranks. We have nationalist. There are a lot of words that get thrown around about philosophical approaches to foreign policy. Where did this action fit in that canon and also relative to where Donald Trump was just maybe even a week ago?

RAMESH PONNURU, “NATIONAL REVIEW”: Well, I think that it may be that the real foreign policy doctrine of this administration is, keep them guessing, and not just in operational terms. If you think about what President Trump said in discussing these strikes, he said, America has to stand for justice. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier in the week that we needed to act on behalf of the international community. That fits squarely in a liberal internationalist and neoconservative foreign policy establishment that Trump seemed to reject root and branch during the campaign. If you take that rhetoric of this week seriously, then the sort of things Senator McCain is saying, follow from it. If we really are going to stand for justice, we need to have a broader intervention in Syria. Is Trump willing to take his own words to their logical conclusion that way? I’m not sure that he should, but -- and I’m not sure that he will.

DICKERSON: Do you think, Ruth, that there is a down side? When you speak this moral terms, as Ramesh just nicely pointed out, you speak in moral terms, is it only a one-off? Doesn’t morality transfer into other areas, put you on the hook for action in other places?

RUTH MARCUS, “WASHINGTON POST”: If you believe that what you need to do is set a consistent theme and be part of a consistent whole, yes. Consistency has not always been Donald Trump’s strong point. And I would -- you talked about a week ago. I would -- the flip was even quicker than that. On Tuesday, President Trump said, I don’t want to be the president of the world. And on Wednesday, he said, I now have the responsibility.

So I don’t think we know yet what the Trump doctrine is. Is the Trump doctrine that if there is video of dead, beautiful babies, that we will act? Secretary Tillerson spoke about earlier chemical attacks that we not respond to. Or is it more of the logical conclusion that war crimes are war crimes, dead people are dead people, whether they are killed by barrel bombs or by chemical attacks? This is a data point, a really interesting one. As Michael said, we don’t know precisely where it leads.

ED O’KEEFE, “WASHINGTON POST”: And I think, you know, a real testament could come in response to what’s happened in Egypt today. Two Coptic Christian churches bombed. This was a presidential candidate who ran around the country saying that we cannot allow ISIS to attack Christians around the word. ISIS has already taken responsibility for these attacks this morning. Look at what he said last February after the pope questioned his Christianity. He said, “I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now with our current president.” If he says that kind of stuff on the campaign trail and he doesn’t really respond to what happened today, I think there are a lot of supporters, frankly, who will wonder how consistent he’s being. Those earned him some of the loudest applause lines back in the day when he would talk about attacks on Christians around the world, and this is certainly a pretty brazen one today.

MARCUS: But another thing that -- that earned him applause lines was talking about America first.


O’KEEFE: Right.

MARCUS: So there are a lot of Trump supporters who are wondering where they stand in here, That’s another strain on him.

DICKERSON: Well, I wonder, Ramesh, do you think he pays any political price within his own group of supporters who said, as Rush said, you weren’t’ going to be adventuresome like this. Repeatedly Donald Trump on the -- on the campaign trail said he wouldn’t do just the kind of things he’s just done.

PONNURU: Some of his strongest and earliest supporters have been expressing some serious doubts about this action. I think the question really is, is it a one-off. If he gets more deeply involved in Syria, then I think that some of those people start becoming outright opponents of him. But if he doesn’t -- if he just moves on, then -- then I don’t think that happens.

The other interesting thing is, what happens to the opposition? Nothing the president has done has earned more praise from the Democrats than this military action this week, which is kind of odd in a way. They’ve been portraying him as this great menus until the moment he starts firing missiles and then suddenly he’s a statesman.

DICKERSON: Michael, one of the ongoing themes or the question about the Trump administration is what happens in a crisis. Who’s is in the room? Does the president listen to them? You could see the secretary of state -- well, a, assess the secretary of state for me, if you would like to, b, you could see him, and you’ve seen it in other administration officials really talking about how the president was asking questions on the b and there seemed to be an effort here to make a case about his competency in this kind of moment. How do you read the internal workings of the Trump team about this?

DUFFY: It’s way too early to begin to read it. I -- I -- I -- you and I both know that every time there’s a first foreign policy crisis, the anecdotes usually tumble out of the White House the next day saying the president was asking a lot of questions. No matter who the president is, no matter, you know, what decade it is.

I think there is a moment in every presidency where the commander in chief becomes president. This isn’t a job you can prepare for. You only get on-the-job training, even those who are particularly qualified, which this one wasn’t, only can really understand what it’s like once you are facing a test like this. On Wednesday, in the Rose Garden moment, there was this little bite of President Trump saying, I have the responsibility, as just a day after the tweet about, I don’t want to be president -- which made me think --

MARCUS: Of the world.

DUFFY: Yes, of the world, right, which is good because he wasn’t elected to that. But -- but it made me think, oh, he now is finally putting on this, you know, uniform for the first time. That it’s just now kind of, on this respect, getting to him. And that’s one of the things about whether it’s his critics on the left or the right or its supporters or the people who don’t like him are going to have to contend with, which is that every president grows into the job as they face the challenges and the in-box gets more complicated.

DICKERSON: All right, we’re going to go on to the other items in the in-box. Stay here all of you. We’ll be back after a break. Stay with us.


DICKERSON: And we’re back with our panel.

Ramesh, I want to start with you. We’re going to do a little tea leaf reading about the White House staff, because there have been lots of stories this week, some related to the Syrian action, others not connected with it, about turmoil within the White House and a confrontation at some level between Steve Bannon, the senior advisor to the president, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. What do you make of that conflict to the extent it exists and what do you make of the millions of stories about it which are themselves the product of a certain set of behavior at the White House?

PONNURU: I think the fact that you mean that everybody is leaking about their internal opposition? I think that this is a highly factionalized administration. It has been a highly factionalized administration from the very beginning. And that doesn’t seem to be something that President Trump minds. He seems to -- that seems to be part of the management structure that he prefers. He does seem, though, to get upset if too much of it spills into the papers and then it get rained back in. But I don’t think that that is something that is going to change because I think that’s just built into the way he runs things.

DICKERSON: Ed, yesterday there was the -- the White House was using the messaging channels of the White House to say there was a meeting. Kushner and Bannon were told by the president to knock it out, work together. And -- and so, you know -- but when you’re issuing press releases essentially to say everything -- everybody is on the same page, isn’t that itself a sign --

O’KEEFE: And when the secretary of state himself had to point out to you that, you know, everyone worked together as a good team, trying to get out ahead of those questions, I think it’s a sign that it is a real problem.

I could tell you up at the Capitol, Republicans are privately frustrated by all this because they see it as a big distraction and it keeps them from being able to do the big things. They couldn’t get health care reform done despite all the reliance they were putting on the White House chief of staff and the health and human services secretary. You know, Steve Bannon strong arming a bunch of House Republicans at the 11th hour didn’t work. He has few fans up on Capitol Hill.

I think the only one that will really bring pause, to lawmakers especially, is if Reince Priebus is somehow shown the door. They see him as a critical component in getting the legislative agenda passed that the president wants and that Republicans want because he is one of the few who can really speak as an equal or someone who understands Congress in that White House.

DICKERSON: And with connections to the House Speaker Paul Ryan.

O’KEEFE: Right.

DUFFY: So I think we were -- to freeze frame it this morning, and that’s a risky thing to do, it feels to me at least like Priebus has managed to implement a truce between Kushner and Bannon. How long this truce holds is anybody’s guess, a week, maybe two. And the reason it’s going to be hard to hold is that the ideological -- some of it is about tactics and all that stuff, but some it’s just ideology. This is a White House with a broad spectrum of views ranging from Bannon and the sort of isolate -- you know, nationalist view on the right, to Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn, who if -- if they aren’t moderate Democrats, are certainly not ideological (ph). So that’s at least half the American political spectrum and a little bit more. That’s much more than say Jim Baker, Ed Meese in the Reagan administration. It’s a big gap -- it’s a big gulf. And they won’t be able to, until they have a decision-making process that includes everyone, they’re not going to have -- get past this. And we’ll -- we’ll have another blowup soon.

DICKERSON: And also, Ruth, as Michael pointed out, when you have a spectrum like that, that spectrum comes into conflict with issues. I mean these people care about what they care about and the issues are complicated and so isn’t that, I mean isn’t the -- as they deal with issues, this conflict is going to arise no matter how much they try and paper it over.

MARCUS: They can try to paper it over. This is, as Michael said, this is different than other White Houses. They are -- they’re usually jockeying for power. This is jockeying for ideology. And then there’s another really big difference that we haven’t talked about, which is, one of these people is not like the other, because his father-in-law is the president of the United States. That makes him a little bit unfirable. So, I -- you know, I’ve never been a president, but I have been a parent. You can tell the kids to knock it off, but it doesn’t always work the first time or even the second time.

PONNURU: Just two quick (ph). Priebus doesn’t belong in either of these factions.


PONNURU: He’s not a nationalist. He’s not a New York liberal. He’s a fairly conventional conservative. That could give him a position to be a kind of balancing point if he lasts. But the other thing -- if you think about the impact this is having on this administration, during crucial debates in Capitol Hill about tax policy, about health care reform, nobody has quite known what the administration wants, because it’s not clear the administration knows what it wants.

O’KEEFE: Exactly.

DICKERSON: Well, and that’s the key deal. This is not just inside kind of interesting behind the scenes stuff. This matters to actual policy.

Ed, let me -- let’s switch now. Supreme Court. Tell us what happened this week. And -- and, obviously, Judge Gorsuch is now an associate justice, but other things happened too.

O’KEEFE: That’s right. Well, they -- they got rid of a longstanding procedural rule that they use, the filibuster. And now it means that virtually -- well, no, all presidential nominees, whether you’re a cabinet secretary, a commissioned chairman, a district court judge or a Supreme Court justice gets in with a majority vote. That will matter more, I think, when the party that controls the White House controls the Congress -- or controls the Senate in that you’ll be able to get through more ideological or partisan picks in all cases. But I -- it will be interesting if one day we have a White House and the Senate controlled by either party, and it requires a little more negotiation.

I will say this. While a lot of us might bemoan the end of this, senators themselves were kind of over it. This began, you’ll remember, back in 2013. The Democrats started eliminating the filibuster. This week, to quote the old Martina McBride song, “my give a damn’s busted.” Their give a damn was busted. They didn’t care. Just get it over with. Let’s move on. The hope, when they get back from a two-week recess, is that they can work more seriously and in a bipartisan way on tax reform and all the other things that they want to get done this year.

DICKERSON: Why, Ruth, didn’t Democrats wait and -- and have this fight for the next justice that -- that Donald Trump is likely to have to nominate?

MARCUS: That would have been smarter. It would have put them in a better position. It would have helped to hold off a more extreme nominee. And it would have put them in a better position if they were going to eventually lose the fight. But we were in this position where both of the leaders, both Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and Chuck Schumer, the Democrat leader, actually wanted this fight, were arguing against their members who wanted to find the solution.


MARCUS: And it really leaves a lot of poisonous feelings.

DICKERSON: OK. We’re going to end on that joyful note of poisonous feelings.

Thanks to all of you. Thanks for watching. We’ll be back in a moment.


DICKERSON: That’s it for us today. Thanks for watching. Until next week, for FACE THE NATION, I’m John Dickerson.

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