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Slippery Politics; "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Aired May 24, 2010 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thank you, Wolf. There are sensitive negotiations under way this hour in the debate over whether gay and lesbian Americans should be allowed to serve openly in the military. It's a tough policy question and makes for emotional politics. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, told me just days ago it would be in his view stupid to rush ahead with a repeal right now. But we're told tonight there could be a compromise in the works and we are told Secretary Gates is involved in those negotiations -- that in a moment.

But first, mounting outrage over the BP oil spill and escalating efforts by the Obama White House to convince increasingly skeptical Americans it is keeping an eagle eye on the company's efforts to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That effort, however, seems at times muddled by a lack of information and mixed messages -- a good place to begin a conversation with top presidential adviser David Axelrod.


KING: Secretary Salazar yesterday outside of BP headquarters said if we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way. And yet at the White House briefing this afternoon, Thad Allen, Admiral Allen, the coordinator of all this almost laughed when he was asked that question saying essentially the government doesn't have the equipment. The government doesn't have the means to be down there doing what needs to be done. Is the administration perhaps -- should Secretary Salazar perhaps have chosen his words more carefully?

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Well I don't know. But we should understand what the law says. What the law says is that the company has the principal responsibility for dealing with the spill. We have oversight responsibility over the company and ultimately the responsibility of holding them accountable for any damage that is done. They have every impetus, John, as you know, to try and seal off this leak.

And they're working hard to do it. And we're working with them. All the scientists within our government are a part of their strategic team in dealing with this. The Coast Guard's been on the scene from the beginning. Now, where our interests diverge is on the question of how much oil is being leaked into the Gulf. Because that will have something to do with the liability that they face once this is -- once this is finished. And we have a separate and independent operation going on under the aegis of federal scientists and the federal labs to determine exactly how much oil is being leaked. KING: And as that effort is under way and obviously the most urgent effort is to stop the leak is under way.

AXELROD: Absolutely.

KING: There are several layers of the accountability question. You said on "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" April 30th, no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here. And yet we know from government records seven new permits for various types of drilling have been granted. Now those are on existing projects, I grant you that. But seven new drilling permits have been granted and federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for Gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits in other places, some of them for projects just like the Deepwater Horizon project. Given the fact that we have now learned essentially that there's no fire department that can go down and fix these things because it is so hard, shouldn't there be just a total time-out until we figure this out?

AXELROD: Well let me say, John, that of those seven permits that you mentioned -- yes, they are all on existing projects. They're amendments of existing permits as it were. Two are in Deepwater -- on Deepwater wells and those have been suspended. And yes, we should hold up. And the president has said we should hold up any new exploration until we determine what happened here.

And the president just appointed a commission to look very closely at these issues. There is a place, obviously, for domestic drilling, for offshore drilling. It's been done in the Gulf for 40 years before this incident. But it has to be done safely. It has to be done securely. We have to have reasonable plans for dealing with accidents. And unless we can say that, then, of course, we could move forward.

KING: The president is going to go up to the Senate Republican luncheon tomorrow, a interesting trip in the middle of this very contentious election year. And I'm told one of the things he'll be told is yes, Mr. President, we could support conceivably the 23, $25 billion you would like to keep teachers from being laid off across the country and we would support a lot of the other emergency spending requests the administration has asked for but only if we find other places in the budget to make the offsets, to cut spending elsewhere to pay for these proposals.

Is the president prepared as an olive branch of the Republicans to say I will go to the Democratic leadership and say that's right, if we're going to give, let's take the $23 billion for teachers, example. You help me with votes on that, I will get you the $23 billion elsewhere.

AXELROD: Well first of all let me say it's heartening that the folks in the Republican Caucus have become so concerned about this because, as you know, many of them were in the Senate when President Clinton left office with a $237 billion surplus and when President Obama took office, he had to manage a 1.3 trillion deficit largely because of the policies that many in that caucus supported, so their sensitivity now is greatly appreciated.

We'll have that discussion, and on this and many other issues tomorrow. And we're always going to look for common ground. We all recognize that because of the policies that we saw over those many years, we have a tremendous problem with these deficits and we have to control them in the mid and long term. We also have a continuing economic emergency for many Americans.

As you know, you know 300,000 teachers are in the process of being laid off across the country. That has enormous impact on our kids. It throws us back in terms of education reform, so -- and that is a true emergency. So we need to work through this issue.

KING: Let me ask you, lastly, to help us resolve once and for all the great political mystery this campaign season. Joe Sestak, the congressman, is now the Pennsylvania Senate nominee, the Democrat in Pennsylvania. You initially -- the White House did support it -- another candidate, Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican turned Democrat. Congressman Sestak says early on he was offered a job in the administration to get out of that race.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said lawyers in the White House and others have looked into conversations that were had with Congressman Sestak and nothing inappropriate happened. But the White House has refused to say what happened. If nothing inappropriate happened then what appropriate happened?

AXELROD: Well look John, I didn't have any conversations with Congressman Sestak and I didn't have any conversations with anybody connected with Congressman Sestak. So all I can tell you is what Robert told you, you know these allegations were made, they were looked into, and they were found unwarranted --


KING: But David, forgive me for interrupting. But candidate Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration in history --

AXELROD: And he's delivering that as well.

KING: If these -- if these conversations did happen, it marches up into the gray area, perhaps into the red area of a felony. It is a felony to induce somebody by offering them a job.

AXELROD: Certainly.

KING: So why won't the White House just say here --


KING: -- either Congressman Sestak is lying or somebody had some conversation with him about a job.

AXELROD: Well John, you're absolutely right, if such things happened, they would constitute a serious breach of the law, and that's why when the allegations were made, they were looked into. And there is -- there was no evidence of such a thing.

KING: So the misunderstanding is on the congressman's side of this equation, is that fair?

AXELROD: I don't know -- I don't know that the congressman would disagree with what I'm saying here.

KING: And you -- but you cannot say what the conversations were?


AXELROD: I was not -- I was not a party to the conversations. So no, I can't say that.

KING: And you haven't been briefed on what the lawyers told Robert Gibbs?

AXELROD: All I know is -- well, I've been briefed as Robert has that they looked into it and their conclusion was that it was -- the conversations were perfectly appropriate.

KING: So then why can't we understand what those conversations were? We're talking in circles here (INAUDIBLE) can somebody say --

AXELROD: We're not -- we're only talking in circles because I wasn't a part of those conversations so I can't relate to you what the conversations were.

KING: Can you make available the people who had the conversations?

AXELROD: I'm sure that all of this will be -- you know I don't think any questions will be left unanswered on this.

KING: Well, we're right here for you (INAUDIBLE) when you're ready to make those people available. I'm not trying to be a jerk here. I just --

AXELROD: No, no, I -- and I don't take it that way. I think these are fair questions.

KING: All right David Axelrod at the White House, appreciate your time.

AXELROD: Thanks, John.


KING: A lot more to come tonight including the man on the other end of those conversations Congressman and Senate-candidate Joe Sestak. Also we'll take you inside those sensitive conversations about repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Also ahead tonight, a very busy night and we want you to help us. We want you to join us as we go "Wall-to-Wall" in a special tribute to the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. has a fascinating new interactive way where you can help us remember those who have paid the ultimate price.

On my "Radar" tonight, a he-said, she-said envelopes controversy in the South Carolina governor's race. It's fascinating. And also a Democratic Senate-candidate who last week said he had misspoken about his military record is now suddenly sorry. When we go "Play-by-Play" tonight -- you won't want to miss this -- Marv Albert, the voice of play by play goes one on one with President Obama about how sports sometimes gets political.

And Pete's on the street tonight. You know it's commencement season and who better to get some advice for graduates.


KING: Tonight negotiations under way this hour as members of Congress and the administration try to broker a deal over repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the United States military. Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash has been working her sources -- excuse me -- and has some new information.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Several sources who were involved in a couple of meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill today tell me that there is what seems to be a tentative agreement between leaders on Capitol Hill, Democrats, who want to force a repeal in "don't ask, don't tell", the ban on gays in the military, and vote on it this week and deal with them and White House sources and possibly the Pentagon. And what they're trying to do, of course, is push legislation soon, now, before the election comes and before every Democrat on Capitol Hill believes that math (ph) is going to change and it will make it even harder to do this after November's election.

KING: And as you know, it is an incredibly tough both policy and political issue as they negotiate this compromise. How do they overcome this? I had a conversation with the defense secretary, Robert Gates, just a few days ago and he says he's for repeal but he wants time. And he said to rush him would cause problems.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I've led several huge public institutions and I've led change in every one of them. And there's a smart way to do change and there's a stupid way to do change. This one has to be done smart.


KING: So if this one has to be done smart, and he is key to this, obviously, not only in selling it to the military but in selling it to some members of Congress, is he not?

BASH: Absolutely key and that is why what I'm told that the tentative compromise says is that the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would not take effect until after the military review that Secretary Gates and the military is working on is done, that would be December. But not just that, also it would say that the repeal would not take effect until the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president of the United States certify that it would not compromise military readiness at all.

And several other things and that is going to be key in terms of the votes -- to getting the votes on Capitol Hill because you have several Democrats, both in the key Senate committee and in the House in general who say, I don't know if I'm comfortable with doing this if the Pentagon isn't on board, so that is why getting him on board is so key. Unclear if the secretary of defense is actually going to come out and say, I'm OK with this. But John, I am told that White House sources are saying that there could be actually a formal statement from the White House as soon as tonight saying that they're OK with this compromise.

KING: As we wait for that statement, let's head up to Capitol Hill to join the lawmaker, get the views of the lawmaker who will have a vote on this issue and also has great experience on this issue. Joe Sestak is the Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He's the Democratic Senate-nominee in that state running for the seat currently held by Arlen Specter and he is the highest ranking former military official, former admiral, to serve in the United States Congress.

Congressman Sestak, let's start there. The compromise would essentially -- you would go on the record repealing "don't ask, don't tell" now, but it would give the defense secretary time to implement the policy and apparently a little bit of wiggle room if the feedback from the troops in the survey under way causes him some concerns about housing or some other issues. Is it acceptable to you?

REP. JOE SESTAK (D), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: Actually, it's not. I feel very strongly that what Admiral Mullen said really struck home. We're actually asking people to live a lie. We're asking them to live a lie in an institution that prides itself on integrity. In my 31 years in the U.S. military, I watched this turn on a dime.

When we were struck, for example, at 9/11 and we could immediately implement the wonderful men and women of this nation and place them in harm's way. There's not a question in my mind that we could do the same now. This may be one of shared compromise or is a principle compromise, but I honestly think it's taking too long to get to the principle that everyone's created equal.

I went to war and we knew (INAUDIBLE) public surveys that a certain percentage of those members of my carrier battle group, aircraft carrier battle group were gay, how do you even think of coming home and saying they don't have equal rights. I understand the great respect that people have as I do for Secretary Gates, but we can do this much more rapidly.

KING: So then would you vote no if this was the compromise? If your leadership told Joe, this is the only way to get the votes. The conservative Democrats will not accept a faster plan. Would you vote no on principle or would you give in to such a compromise? SESTAK: I'll give in to this shared compromise probably as long as there is something which I haven't found out yet that we aren't, and I asked Secretary Gates this literally during a hearing two months ago. We aren't discharging in the meantime those who somehow say, I'm gay. I'd like to see that held to where we place that in abeyance somehow.

KING: Congressman, I want to clear up once and for all a controversy that has dogged you a little bit. You said some time ago that when Arlen Specter was still in the race, early in the primary somebody at the White House came to you and said I will offer you a job, will give you some kind of a job if you would get out. I talked to David Axelrod earlier today; he said White House lawyers have assured them that all these coverings were appropriate. What specifically did they offer you, sir?

SESTAK: Well I was actually asked by a reporter something that a few months ago that had happened almost eight months earlier.

KING: Right.

SESTAK: And I answered it honestly --

KING: You answered it honestly and you said they offered you a job.

SESTAK: I said -- and I did answer it honestly and said yes, because I felt, as you asked me about my naval experience that I have a personal accountability -- I should have for my role in a matter, which I talked about. Beyond that, I'll let others talk about their roles --

KING: Sir, I need to ask you about this.


KING: I need to ask you about this. You mentioned your military experience and you cast yourself -- and I don't question -- as a man of great integrity. The American people, as you know, don't trust politicians. They don't trust this town. If somebody was playing politics as usual or possibly breaking the law, sir, in trying to induce you to leave a political campaign with a federal appointment that could possibly be breaking the law. We're trying to get just the basics of who said what and offered what?

SESTAK: Yes sir and I'll let others speak for themselves --

KING: You're the only one who knows, sir.


KING: You're -- there's you and someone at the White House involved in these conversations. You're one of the parties who knows.

SESTAK: Someone, as I said, was asked. I answered the question and I did forthrightly for my personal accountability in that matter. KING: So what is the harm --


KING: What is the harm of you saying this is the person who called me and this is what they offered me so that we can go to that person and get the other end of the conversation?

SESTAK: I'll tell you what the harm actually appears to be. You and I should be talking right now about how people were slammed in this economy, John --

KING: I would love to talk about those things, sir.


KING: We have talked about them in the past and I hope we will talk about them in the future of this campaign. And we have talked about them in the past, but this is a question about the public trust in institutions. You want to move to the United States Senate. You want to put your hand on a bible and take an oath. When people look at this town, they don't like the shenanigans. And I'm simply asking you who offered you a job to say get out of the race?

SESTAK: Yes, sir. And I've said all I'm going to say on the matter. And I have great respect for you, but others need to explain whatever their role might be. I did explain with integrity my role. But thank you very much.

KING: All right, Congressman, we'll keep trying to get that answer --


KING: If you change your mind, we'll be here to take your phone call I promise you.

SESTAK: Yes sir, and I'm sorry to rush. I have a vote literally time (INAUDIBLE) just ran but they give an extra minute and John, thank you very much.

KING: Cast your vote, sir. We'll talk again in the days ahead. I appreciate it very much.

SESTAK: Thank you. Thank you.

KING: A lot more to digest tonight, the politics of oil, gays in the military. Next we'll bring in our senior correspondent Joe Johns and former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts. Stay with us for the conversation.


KING: All right, some fascinating political developments tonight including breaking news on the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal question. Let's continue the conversation, our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is still with us. Former Republican congressman J.C. Watts is with us tonight and our senior correspondent Joe Johns as well -- Dana, quickly, to more breaking news on the "don't ask, don't tell" issue.

BASH: That's right -- while you were interviewing Congressman Sestak, I got an e-mail that CNN has obtained a letter from the Director of Budget from the White House effectively, formally saying that the White House does support this compromise language that would repeal "don't ask, don't tell" that Congress would move forward with it this week, but it would do it -- would hold off on it until the military is done with its review.

KING: So a delayed trigger essentially.

BASH: It would delay it until the military could review and also until the president and key members of the -- of the leadership at the Pentagon would certify that it wouldn't hurt military readiness. And I just got off the phone with a source who says that Secretary Gates actually will release a statement soon, maybe in a matter of minutes, and we expect him to embrace this. Democrats on Capitol Hill hope will give them votes to push this forward in Congress --

KING: J.C. you know the Hill full well and you know how emotional this issue can be. Is the blessing of Bob Gates on a compromise that gives him a little wiggle room, is that enough?

J.C. WATTS, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: I'm not so sure it is and that by the way is intelligence that I got at about 4:30 this evening roughly three hours ago that they would strike a deal, they'd vote on it but would delay it -- delay its implementation until the military studied the issue, which I think you're going to find that many members of Congress would say, why wouldn't you study the issue first, and then -- and then pass the legislation? It's almost like you're shooting and then aiming. So I do think members of Congress will have some --

KING: When you were in the majority, you remember pressure from the right. They're in the majority. I Believe Joe they call this pressure from the left.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's for sure.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: But you know -- you got to wonder though whether this administration is kind of trying to fight, re-fight the old battle that the Clinton administration fought years and years ago. It turned out very badly for them when they went into the area of "don't ask, don't tell". But I mean if you look at some of the polling that's out there, it seems like the American public is a lot more perhaps receptive to it, now than back in the day. On the other hand, there's a very small group of people that can cause a lot of trouble in a midterm election. And this is just the kind of thing that can rattle them up.

KING: Let's talk for a minute about the conversation I just had with Congressman Sestak and David Axelrod earlier about whether or not he was offered a job by somebody at the White House, to drop out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary. It's moot to a degree because he won that primary now and he's the Democratic nominee. But if you use your power to induce somebody essentially a financial offer induce them for a job, it -- "A" it can be unseemly. But "B" there are some cases in which it crosses the line and is illegal. He won't say who he talked to, Congressman. The White House says their lawyers looked at it and they found nothing inappropriate. But they won't tell us either who talked to the congressman? Is that good enough?

WATTS: Well -- and I think first we -- first we should take a test here and see a show of hands who thought that you know Senator Specter was going to win that race? I don't think anybody thought that was going to happen. But it's not a moot point and I think Darrell Issa has said -- he's on the Government Oversight Committee. He's calling for hearings.

And I think you're going to see people peeling that onion until they get some answers on it. And so I don't think that's going to be good enough, because there is a possible violation of law -- I'm not saying it was. But there's the possibility. So I do think you're going to ask -- Congress is going to ask for answers.

BASH: But you've -- I mean you've been in politics, you've been in government, you know that deals are struck maybe not to that extent, but they're struck when White Houses and others are trying to get people --


KING: Isn't there something you would rather do?

WATTS: Well --


WATTS: That's true. But I think -- been in politics, having been there for eight years, I know people are going to be asking questions, they're going to want to peel that onion. Darrell Issa can be a pit bull on these types of things and I think you will see --

KING: Is it a higher bar because they promised no more Washington as usual --

JOHNS: Sure, that's exactly the point. And we all know that a quid pro quo like that, a request or an offer of a thing of value in exchange for an official act certainly against the law. It's very hard to prove, though. Prosecutors will tell you -- I mean it's in the mind of the beholders. And both people have to sort of have an agreement. So it's tough to actually say this is anything more than a very difficult political situation.


KING: We saw Joe Sestak --


KING: He doesn't want to answer the questions.


KING: Dana Bash, J.C. Watts, Joe Johns, thanks. We'll have more time on another night. But next, we want you to stay with us. A very special tribute to help us remember the men and women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan and the families they have left behind. You don't want to miss this.


KING: In "Wall to Wall" tonight we want to share with you and also ask for your help in a special tribute CNN is putting together for the fallen. The men and women who have given their lives serving this country and other countries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you go to, you will find a graphic just like this. Each one of these dots, the hometown and the life story of an American serviceman or servicewoman who were killed in Afghanistan.

Obviously, more have perished in Iraq. And as I click on over, I want you to watch as it builds. You see over the years -- this is the timeline. As it builds over the years, the dots filling in both in Iraq and here at home to the current casualty total. Now 4700 coalition wide, 4400 here in the United States.

A remarkable program. You can see down here the age of the fallen. Most of them in the 18 to 22 range. You see there. But still some as many as 50 killed. The locations and their hometowns across the United States.

You can also go from date timeline, the beginning of the Iraq war, in this case, back here, all the way up to the present in 2009.

You can use the map in an interactive way. The bigger dots represent the areas where there has been more casualties. You pop here. Anbar Province. And if you watch this, the pictures load, 631 casualties the past six years plus in Anbar Province. And you can scroll down and look and see the names and pay tribute to them.

You see the names, the faces, the pictures. It is a remarkable way for us at CNN to pay tribute to the fallen as Memorial Day approaches. But I want to walk this way, too, just to show you how you can help us.

As we come over here, you see one of the profiles. Staff Sergeant Melvin Leslie Glazer Jr., 38 years old from Moore, Oklahoma. He was killed on December 12th, 2004. And you can see in his profile, he died as a result of enemy action in Anbar Province, which I just showed you on the other wall, again back in 2004.

If you know Staff Sergeant Moore, maybe you're from his hometown, maybe you know someone who served in his unit, you can come on to this site and load your thoughts.

Excuse me while I pass over this way. You see here a hometown hero. This is an iReport posted by someone who had an experience related to Staff Sergeant Moore. Let me bring this out for you so you can see it. We'll pop it up and you'll see.

Now this woman did not know Staff Sergeant Blazer -- excuse me -- personally, but her husband, her ex-husband did serve with him. And so she posted a photo and she brought in materials with us. So she decided to name her son in his honor after hearing such wonderful stories about Melvin from her ex-husband.

"We decided to name him Blazer because we felt it was a great tribute to an amazing man and a very good way to celebrate him at the same time."

So if you can go to, maybe find your hometown. Maybe you won't fine anyone you know, but it just gives you a chance to take a moment -- to take a moment to pay tribute to the remarkable men and women who have paid the ultimate price and also their families, of course, who are here at home.

We urge you to do that. And we'll be taking some time all week long to talk about this remarkable service.

And while you're online, you can also help us with this week's "Make Your Case." This week's question, should there be an Iraq war memorial alongside the Vietnam, Korean and other World War II memorials and the like right here in Washington, D.C.?

Record your opinions and post it at We'll play the best videos on Friday. Winner gets a JKUSA mug.


KING: Today's "Most Important Person You Don't Know" is the Honolulu City councilman who is about to become Hawaii's first Republican congressman in nearly 20 years.

Charles Djou won this weekend's special election for the vacancy in Hawaii's first congressional district, just happens to be where Barack Obama grew up.

How did he manage that? With a whopping 39.4 percent of the vote? His two Democratic rivals and 11 -- that's 11 -- minor candidates split the rest and it was winner-take-all.

Djou is 39 and married. Both he and his wife Stacy have law degrees. They also have a teenage son and two young daughters who've been promised a trip to Disneyland because dad missed so much time at home during the campaign.

Joining me here in studio to talk this one over, longtime Republican strategist, Robert Traynham, Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona.

So, Maria, last week your party was glowing. You held that Pennsylvania seat. This has to be a disappointment for the Democrats, losing not only a Hawaii seat held by a Democrat, but boy, that's where little Barry Obama grew up.


MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, of course, you never like to lose. But I think the reality of the situation is that, what was happening on the Democratic side was it was not ideal. And so the national party pulled out.

The Democratic candidates couldn't get it together. They wanted to each fight for it. And my understanding is that they're going to continue to fight for it until the primary. But that's fine.

We're very confident that come November -- because there's going to be another general election where there will be one Democratic candidate, I believe we'll get it back.

ROBERT TRAYNHAM, BUSH-CHENEY '04 CAMPAIGN ADVISER: It's a sweet victory for Republicans, there's no question about it. A, it's Hawaii. B, obviously, it's kind of -- you know, blows over some of the smoke from Pennsylvania from last week. So it's a sweet victory.

The question then becomes is, can Republicans hold on to that seat in November? And truth be told, looks like they probably can.

KING: Let me quickly get your thoughts. The biggest thing on our radar tonight is this breaking news that they have apparent compromise language to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Essentially the Congress would vote this week, and if they have the votes, the president we'd see sign language for an appeal but it wouldn't take effect until after a survey of the troops that Secretary Gates is conducting and it would give him some wiggle room in the implementation.

The right thing to do? I know a lot of liberals want this, have wanted it for some time. Some conservative Democrats might get a little bit nervous in an election year.

CARDONA: Absolutely the right thing to do and the right time to could it. And I think that the White House has moved as well very carefully on this, too slow for a lot of Democrats. But they're finally getting to it.

The president has talked time and again publicly and privately that he is going to get this done. And I think that he is going to get it done and stick to his word on it, which is important.

TRAYNHAM: It's been a long time coming, John. The real question is, is whether or not Secretary Gates is going to come out and endorse this. As you know, he's very cautious about this. Been very curt and said, look, we're going to do -- when we do this, we're going to do it right.

So the question becomes is whether or not Secretary Gates feels comfortable with this. KING: He did not want this done before the elections or at least not until late this year after the elections. But my understanding tonight is that the train -- in his view, the train was leaving the station and he was trying to negotiate the best language possible.

TRAYNHAM: We'll see. But again, it's long, long overdue for obvious reasons.

KING: All right. Let's continue. Other big stories on our radar. You might say Sarah Palin is standing by her woman. South Carolina's governor candidate Nikki Haley says she has been 100 percent faithful to her husband. And a conservative blogger's claim that he had an inappropriate physical relationship with her is, quote, "categorically and totally false."

Palin is among those who's endorsed Haley in next month's four- way Republican primary. On Facebook today, Governor Palin writes, "I warned her and her family that she would be targeted because she's a threat to the corrupt political machine and she would be put through some hell."

CARDONA: She's talking about the corrupt Republican political machine, I imagine?

KING: In South Carolina? I think she is.

CARDONA: So I -- you know, I think it is unfortunate for Nikki Haley because it is just an allegation and my understanding is that the conservative blogger who made the allegation is not going to win, you know, the prize for citizen of the year any time soon.

I think that Palin did the right thing in coming to her rescue and to her defense.

KING: We're going to keep that tape. Palin did the right thing.


KING: We have Maria --

CARDONA: You know, I have actually defended Palin on many occasions, John. You should go back and see those tapes.

KING: All right.

CARDONA: I'll send them to you. And -- but also I think that it helps that Haley has the support of Jenny Sanford. Unfortunately, though, I think that there might be a little affair scandalous fatigue within South Carolina. So we'll see what happens.

TRAYNHAM: The pit bull with lipstick and the grizzly mama is coming out to defend her little cubs.


TRAYNHAM: I mean good for Sarah Palin for obviously defending obviously her soul mate in this, if you will. Good for Maria for acknowledging that Sarah Palin did the right thing by standing by her woman.

So we'll -- truth be told, we'll have to see. Clearly one person is saying one thing, the other person is saying completely different. You know what? In politics, John, as you know, with television cameras and everything else, the truth will come out.

KING: Let's see if the Kumbaya moment here last when we go to this one. Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, is suddenly sorry about misstating his military record.

Last week, Blumenthal merely regret it that he had, quote, "misspoken," leading several people to believe -- several audiences to believe he had served in Vietnam even though he didn't.

Now in a statement to Connecticut's largest newspaper, Blumenthal actually uses the words, "I'm sorry." He adds, "At times when I have sought to honor veterans, I have not been as clear or precise as I should have been about my service in the Marine Corps Reserves. I have firmly and clearly expressed regret and taken responsibility for my words."

CARDONA: He should have said that the day that the story came out. That is crisis communications 101. You have things in print that you can't deny, come out and say you're sorry, and then get on with it.

So I'm glad that he finally has done that. I don't think that this will hurt him all that much. He's got some time to make it up. He's got some time to focus on his record, some time to focus on the fact that he has a lot of support within the ranks of veterans. And so I think that he moves on now to the issues, I think he'll be OK.

TRAYNHAM: I don't understand why politicians exaggerate their military record. I mean clearly they know that this stuff is going to come out if, in fact, they do exaggerate. Did he misspeak? Obviously he said he did. I agree with Maria he should have came out the next day and said, you know what? I'm completely sorry. Not only did I misspeak, but I exaggerated because truth be told, it appears that's exactly what he did.

KING: Here's a very fun one out in Chicago. Is Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson thinking about endorsing the Republican for Barack Obama's old Senate seat? A Jackson aide tells CNN no comment. But also he says he's standing by his boss' kind words about Republican Mark Kirk in the Politico saying the story is an accurate representation of the situation.



TRAYNHAM: Look, they're colleagues in the House of Representatives. They clearly represent the same exact state. Jesse Jackson Jr. clearly had aspirations for that seat, but he got passed over as we all know about a year and a half ago.

So good for Jesse Jackson for speaking his conscience and knowing that the Republican is going to win that seat. And the reason why the Republican is going to win that seat, is because not only is he the strongest candidate, but also, truth be told, the Democrats clearly don't have their act together with their Democratic presumptive nominee.

CARDONA: Clearly a lot of mischief. And, you know, we've seen this before not just in this district but in others. Of course it's a problem for the Democratic candidate. He can't find a way to garner the support that he needs within the African-American community to get the machine behind him.

He's going to have a big problem trying to get out the vote and getting voters to support him and to trust him in the fact that he would be the best candidate for the job.

TRAYNHAM: But the real problem is that he's got a credibility issue, going back to the theme with this whole bank -- family bank business, the whole nine yards. Even some Democrats -- and you know this, Maria. Even some Democrats in Illinois are backing away from him because it just appears that this guy is not on the up and up.

KING: So another blue state where you have a Democrat in danger of losing a big seat. All right, time out. Maria and Robert are going to stay with us. When we come back, one senator's appearance in the gulf region. Does it mark a changing tide? "Play by Play" when we come back.


ANNOUNCER: Here comes the "Play by Play."

KING: All right, back for the "Play by Play." You get the drill. Robert Traynham, Republican, Maria Cardona, Democrat here with us to help us break down the tape.

Now if you were listening closely to that voice, "Play by Play," well, a good friend introduces us here. That's Marv Albert, the legendary sportscaster. He's doing the basketball playoffs right now for our sister network. And he also had a chance to meet with the president of the United States to talk basketball and sports and the intersection of sports and politics.

Remember when the Phoenix Suns wore those Los Suns jersey? What did the president think of that?


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that just because somebody's a sports figure or you've got a sports team doesn't mean that you're not part of the community and you're not part of our democracy.

I think it's terrific that the Suns, who obviously feel very strongly about their community, recognize that a big part of their community felt threatened by this new law.


KING: How much does our pop culture, our sports, affect political debates?

TRAYNHAM: I think there's an interesting correlation between the two. There's always an up, there's always a down, someone's always keeping score.

You know what? And I agree with the president. You know, we often talk about our sports figures in a bad way because they're always not being a good role model for our young folks, and here they are saying being a good role model by saying, you know what? We disagree with this public policy debate that's going on in Arizona, so we're going to say something about it.

I think that's OK. The question becomes is whether or not they have undue influence on our politicians as it relates to politicians making decisions. But I think in this case, it was a good thing.

CARDONA: I think it's terrific. You know we always talk about politics not being a spectator sport, people need to get involved, people need to participate. Clearly sports figures are figures that young people look up to, a lot of the public looks up to.

If they can take a stand and perhaps educate just a little bit on the public policy -- the important public policy issues of the day, I think it's always a good thing.

KING: And so I want to move on to the BP oil spill and the administration's effort to show the American people -- convince the American people, we are keeping an eagle eye on BP, we're on top of this.

They had Secretary Salazar and Napolitano down in the gulf today. Thad Allen was at the White House briefing today. David Axelrod was out doing television.

One question is, is there a bit of a mixed message, though? I want you to listen to this tough talk about BP from Secretary Salazar yesterday.


KEN SALAZAR, INTERIOR SECRETARY: If we find that they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately and we'll move forward to make sure that everything is being done to protect the people of the Gulf Coast, the ecological values of the Gulf Coast, and the values of the American people.


KING: So if they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, they'll push them out of the way appropriately. That is Secretary Salazar. Here's Thad Allen at the White House briefing today. He's in charge of this operation. He was asked, well, can we BP out of the way.


ADM. THAD ALLEN, COMMANDANT, U.S. COAST GUARD: To push BP out of the way, it would raise a question replace them with what? They're exhausting every technical means possible to deal with that leak.


KING: Essentially the government doesn't have that equipment. What are you going to do? Find another private company? And how long would that take?

TRAYNHAM: Yes, not -- I'm sorry, go ahead, Maria.

CARDONA: No, I was going to say, you know, Secretary Salazar, I think, was making the point -- and I believe David Axelrod has been making it today as well -- that the government has oversight responsibility as they should.

BP absolutely has ultimate responsibility for all of this. And they haven't been behaving like they do have a responsibility.

KING: But the point is, should you be saying we'll push them out of the way or should you just be saying we'll shake them?

TRAYNHAM: No, you shouldn't be saying that because legally, that's not the case. And I think that's why the White House obviously cleaned up the comments a couple of hours later.

The fact of the matter is, is that not only can -- that the government cannot legally push them out of the away, even if the government was able to do so, not only do we not have the resources, we don't have the expertise to do something like that.

I think that's the frustrating part that the Obama administration is going through right now. Number one for the messaging standpoint, they can't control the narrative. But even if they could control the narrative, they can't in there and actually stop this leak because nobody else can.

KING: One of the great mysteries in this campaign season has been the suggestion -- not suggestion, statement by Joe Sestak, now the Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, that somebody from the White House called him early in the primary when they've asked somebody else and said, you know, Joe, maybe you want to do something else? Maybe you don't want to run for Senate. Maybe we have a job for you.

That's what Senator Sestak says. Getting to the bottom of this, though, is like solving some crazy mystery. I tried to ask David Axelrod today who at the White House talked to Senator -- to Congressman Sestak. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Well, John, you're absolutely right. If such things happen, they would constitute -- they would constitute a serious breech of the law. And that's why when the allegations were made they were looked into. And there is -- there was no evidence of such a thing.

KING: So the misunderstanding is on the congressman's side of this equation, is that fair?

AXELROD: I don't know. I don't know that the congressman would disagree with what I'm -- with what I'm saying here.

KING: And you -- but cannot say what the conversations were? If this has been --


KING: -- looked into by White House lawyers?

AXELROD: No, I was not -- I was not a party to the conversation. So, no, I can't say that.


KING: All right. That's David Axelrod. So one person who was a party to the conversation, well, that would be is Congressman Sestak.


REP. JOE SESTAK (D), PENNSYLVANIA: And I said all I'm going to say on the matter. And I have great respect for you. But others need to explain whatever their role might be. I did explain with integrity my role. But thank you very much.

KING: All right. Congressman, we'll keep trying to get that answer.


KING: We could stop that tape. We didn't get the answer. Do the American people deserve an answer? A specific, clear answer? Who talked to who? What was said? And then we can say, all right, well, where is this? This is gray. Did it cross a line?

TRAYNHAM: Absolutely. Two things. One, this is an administration that promised the most transparent administration in the history of our republic, A. B, this is the reason why Americans are so frustrated with government is because not only is this whole, you know, snake-and-bite type of thing but also, too, just answer the question.

Yes or no. Were you offered a job? And obviously the congressman said yes. Asked about the details, he doesn't want to go there. Then the question then becomes, can the White House respond? Obviously, they're not responding. Why?

CARDONA: John, I would say two things. I think, frankly, outside the beltway, I don't know that anybody cares. People are focused --

KING: You don't think people care? You don't --

CARDONA: I don't.

KING: -- people care?

CARDONA: I don't. I don't. People are focused on --

KING: Shouldn't they care?

CARDONA: I don't know that they should. I think people are focused on trying to get a job. People are focused on the BP spill. People are focused on the economic issues of their time trying to make ends meet for their family.

KING: But if they want to elect people they trust, whose word they believe, to represent them, to deal with all those very important issues you just listed those, and some allegation like this or his own statement comes up, doesn't he then owe the American people -- forget the people --

CARDONA: So ultimately --

KING: People of Pennsylvania, an explanation?

CARDONA: So, ultimately, I believe David Axelrod when he says that at the end of the day there will be no question unanswered. We have no idea what words were spoken. But, you know, we were talking hypothetically before in the greenroom.

If there was a conversation about, so Congressman Sestak, you know, this race is looking difficult for you. We know you have a family to raise. You have fantastic credentials. Here is something that you might be interested in. What is wrong with that?

KING: If it's ambassador to a beautiful island somewhere, they can call me.


KING: Robert Traynham and Maria Cardona, thanks for tonight.

CARDONA: You'll be next on the list, John.

KING: It's graduation season. What advice would you give those entering the workforce? We put our crack Pete Dominick on it. He's on the street next.


KING: Let's head to New York and get a sense of what is coming up at the top of the hour with Campbell Brown.

Hi, Campbell.

CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there, John. Well, as you know, it is 35 days into this disaster in the gulf. And we are covering the oil spill tonight from all angles including the very latest efforts to try to plug the leak, the real story behind BP's continued use of a toxic chemical to clean up the mess, and the political fallout that is now being felt all the way to the oval office.

We'll also talk about this royal mess as well. Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson caught on camera. Just what was she thinking? We've got all that and more at the top of the hour -- John.

KING: What was she thinking? Looking forward to it, Campbell. Thank you.

It is commencement season. And we wanted our offbeat reporter -- very offbeat reporter -- Pete Dominick to head out there and get a sense of just what awaits these young graduates -- Pete.

PETE DOMINICK, JOHN KING, USA'S OFFBEAT REPORTER: Hey, John King. I actually got a little distracted today because I -- I don't know if you know, but I Google my own name on an hourly basis. Since I started working on your show, I threw John King in with my search and look what I found.

Should I call you Doctor John King? You were either, A, giving a -- handing out baguettes, you are painted as still life, or you gave the commencement speech at your alma mater this weekend, University of Rhode Island. Which was it, sir?

KING: D, I was Papa Smurf.


DOMINICK: That -- that one was not a choice.


DOMINICK: I also -- I also dug up the video. And may I say, I'm upset with you. I cried, sir. You made me cry watching your commencement speech this weekend.

KING: What did you think? You know, I'm a doctor twice now. It was actually -- it was a lot of fun to go back. Rhode Island is beautiful. I call it the biggest little state on earth. It was beautiful to go back to see the ocean, to hopefully convince these kids at the time the economy is not doing so well, that you know what, hang in there, it'll be all right.

DOMINICK: Yes, I'll tell you, it really was a really moving speech. I -- you asked me what advice would I give? I would give the same advice that you gave at the end. You told them to find a career they could have fun with. Which I think is so vital and it's easier to do. And that's great advice. Find a career you can have fun with. KING: Have fun, have love for it and learn every day like I do. That's all for us. "CAMPBELL BROWN" starts right now.