Return to Transcripts main page


Deadly Tornadoes; Governor Steve Beshear Interview; Voting in Iran; Sex, Lies and Webcams

Aired March 2, 2012 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, HOST: OUTFRONT tonight breaking news, tornadoes killing at least five people in just the past few hours and are striking more towns at this hour. We go live.

And also the case against a Rutgers student charged following his roommate's suicide. The other man in the romantic encounter took the stand today. You'll hear from him.

And our other top story, the escalating war of words between Iran and Israel and why one word President Obama used today may make all the difference.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight we have breaking news. There are powerful tornadoes now ripping apart the Midwest and southern states at this hour, and it's a very rapidly changing situation as the storms are touching down. Five are dead at this hour in Indiana. More than two dozen tornadoes have been reported in six states.

We've got tornado warnings right now in effect for 50 counties through this evening. All right, this is pretty frightening thing. Some of these storms that we've heard about today have been incredibly powerful. As you know, we've been talking about storms with winds up to 170, 180-miles an hour. And they could be hitting heavily populated areas. We start our coverage with CNN's Gary Tuchman who is in Nashville, Tennessee, tonight. And Gary, what have you seen and heard?

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Erin, this is one of those heavily populated areas. Music City, Nashville, Tennessee, 700,000 people live in the city, 1.7 million people in the metropolitan area. And about one hour ago it was very scary for a lot of the people who live here because that's when the winds came tearing through up to 80 miles per hour, hail the size of marbles started falling.

We were standing outside our hotel right up the street there and people were being yelled at to get out of the lobby because there was so much glass to go down in the basement. The glass did not break. The damage appears to be limited. And right now here now in Nashville the worst appears to be over, however, about 30 miles south of us there are still some serious problems. As you were saying, five people have died, at least five people in the southeastern United States, and 50 counties with tornado warnings. It's a much different animal when you have a tornado warning in a big city like Nashville. We had a few years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, a tornado whipped through Atlanta. There is still damage in Atlanta today from that tornado a few years ago. Right now it appears they escaped here in Nashville. It's been a rough couple of days. Usually we see a lot of tornadoes in the springtime. We're still three weeks away from spring, but it's been a very bad couple of days in the United States in the Midwest and the Southeast -- Erin.

BURNETT: It's amazing just looking at the track, Gary, as we can see. You know we've got two screens up and one of them right now literally has the storms as they continue to move east and as you noted a little bit earlier than had been expected, but with incredible violence. Tell me a little bit more about what it was like when the winds actually came through. You know for some people who aren't from the Midwest it's hard to understand what it's like to just suddenly have winds come through at 80, 90 miles an hour.

TUCHMAN: Yes, this is a very peculiar situation here because we cover a lot of hurricanes and for much of the day it felt like a hurricane was coming because there were 40, 50, 60 mile an hour winds hours before the front came in, but then for 15 minutes it was very violent. The winds were whipping 70, 80 miles per hour and the hail was coming down very heavily. I mean the hail was up to my ankles.

You saw that. I mean they were the size of marbles and it was cold, frozen hail. And people, you know you're not used to seeing that in cities and people were quite panicked for a while. You heard sirens here in the city of Nashville. People were expecting the worst. There was an official tornado warning. A tornado was spotted to our west. It was coming in this direction, but it appears here in the city of Nashville, Music City USA, they're relatively lucky.

BURNETT: And up to your -- you said the hail was actually up to your ankles, Gary?

TUCHMAN: Yes, for a time and what's amazing about hail is that it melts so quickly. I mean you saw it, it was piling up. It looked like a snowstorm and then five minutes later it was all gone except for a couple of hail balls that was still saw sitting around, but for lots of people who live in the city, they've never seen anything like that. It was a very unusual thing to see. People were quite scared. The sirens were going off. People were in the basements.

But right now it's calmed down and the radar shows that at least for now the city of Nashville looks OK, but like I said just 30 miles to our south the bad weather is still going through there. And that's what's amazing about the situation, Erin. You have so many tornado warnings in 50 counties and so many different states, such an unusual occurrence, particularly it's still wintertime. This is not the peak of tornado season, but it's a very difficult time for a lot of people throughout the United States.

BURNETT: Pretty unbelievable. Gary Tuchman, thank you very much. We were going to go to our meteorologist, Rob Marciano who is actually in one of the hardest hit counties in Tennessee right now and the reason we're not able to go to him is actually that it appears that there are storms and tornadoes exactly where he is, so we're going to be checking in with him in a moment as soon as we can get that shot up for you.

But just to give you a sense of how developing this story is and how violent these storms are, we can't even get that shot for you. Let's go to Chad Myers right now who is at our Weather Center though here at CNN. And you know you have been talking about this traipse eastward of all of these storms. And now we have warnings in 50 counties or so --


BURNETT: -- as they move. Is this worse than you had expected?

MYERS: No, this is what we thought. This really is what we thought. We said yesterday 50 to 100 tornadoes on the ground today and right now our count is 61, so we're somewhere in the middle there, but there are still many more hours, Erin, of this could to come. Every storm that you see right there that has -- just all by itself -- every storm that's been all by itself all day has been rotating and tornadoes have been on the ground. That's the storm our Rob Marciano was under when he got knocked off the air, the satellite truck got knocked off the air, tornado there.

Another tornado not that far from south of Huntsville, Alabama and this is going to be the case -- I'll pan you up a little bit farther up because there's a lot more of this to come far down to the south, Huntsville, Birmingham, back into parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. All of these states, if you ever see a storm that's all by itself and it's coming to you, it's probably rotating. It's one of those days that they're called super cells.

They're all by themselves. They don't line up in a line. When you get a line of weather, it's called a squall line, you just get wind and it's over. But when you don't get storms to line up, Erin, they go out all by themselves and they use all the moisture, all the energy and they become the big dog. And they start to rotate.

And when they do, they can put tornadoes down and we know at least of 50 to 60 on the ground already today and still more to come. Now as it gets dark things will cool off. The storms will calm down. It just may take a few hours before that happens -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right, well thank you very much, Chad Myers. We appreciate it. Chad is giving you a sense of the storm. And as we said, our Rob Marciano literally appears to be under -- in one of those incredibly severe weather cells right now where he is standing in Tennessee. So when we are able to get that shot available, we'll see if he can tell us exactly what happened. But as you could hear from Gary Tuchman, you get hail up to your ankles. I mean these are pretty dramatic and sudden and frightening situations.

Kentucky on that map, as you can see, is also affected. And there's been an enormous outbreak of tornadoes there. And we right now on the phone have the governor, Steve Beshear and Governor, thank you very much. We appreciate your taking the time. How bad is it in Kentucky tonight?

GOV. STEVE BESHEAR (D), KENTUCKY (via phone): Well, the storm system hasn't cleared Kentucky yet, but we obviously already have reports of some heavy damage in several areas of the state. I just declared a statewide emergency to allow local officials immediate access to state resources to assist in public safety and recovery efforts. This will allow them to have our National Guard out and everything else that we need without delay.

BURNETT: And Governor is this -- is this something that is worse than you expect, worse than it normally is? I mean you know it seems like last year we heard about Joplin and now we're hearing about this incredible surge in tornado activity? Is it unusual or not?

BESHEAR: Well Kentucky gets some tornado activity. Not nearly as much as sort of the tornado alley, you know, out west of us. But, you know, on Wednesday we had a storm system come through and we were very fortunate then. We had some damage but we didn't have any loss of life. I'm very concerned that we already have some unconfirmed reports of some fatalities and some pretty hard hit areas, so this one will be more difficult, I think, on all of us. But we were as prepared as you can be for these things, and then you've got to respond as quickly as possible, and that's what we're doing.

BURNETT: All right, well Governor, good luck. I hope that some of those missing do not end up fatalities.

Let's go to Rob Marciano, as we said, he was in the midst of tough weather. We finally have our shot back. Hamilton County, Tennessee, is where he is, one of the worst hit counties in that state. He's on the phone because of the possible tornado action there. Rob, tell us what's happening.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST (via phone): We just had an intense thunderstorm move through. Hail about up to an inch in diameter and a rotation with a reported tornado about two to four miles directly to our south. Thankfully that rotation missed us and this area that's already been devastated by a tornado earlier today around 1:00. We are just a few miles north and east of Chattanooga in the town of Oodowa (ph) which is basically a nice suburb of the city.

They had a strong tornado come through over here at 1:00, about 200 yards wide, and tore through a number of subdivisions, at least 40 or 50 homes damaged if not destroyed. Obviously those people are seeking shelter tonight. They had to do so quickly. They had to clear the roads quickly because they knew another round of storms was coming and we just experienced that in the last 45 minutes. Zero fatalities, but a number of serious injuries, up to 10 hospitalized, 15 or so treated at the scene and we're hoping that the zero fatality number remains. Search and rescue operations, Erin, have been halted for this storm to pass, but I suspect that now that it has they'll get at it again until this entire system makes its way through later on tonight.

BURNETT: All right and we've just been looking at video, Rob from your location. Obviously this was taped a few moments ago because your -- you know your video wasn't able to come through because of the weather that you are in, but for viewers, just so you know, this is -- everything you've been seeing the past couple of minutes while Rob was speaking was something that -- is about where he is. Did you see, Rob, the actual twisters? Did you see how they form or how it happens as they moved through today?

MARCIANO: On radar, but this particular -- we were in the hail core when this one came through which meant that it was down to our south. And the rain and hail was coming down so grossly that there was no way to see, you know, more than a tenth of a mile or so in front of us. But I saw certainly some rotation of the clouds, but beyond that between the rain and the hail, and now it's getting dark. It's a whole other ball game now, Erin, with night fall on and these storms rolling through across the Eastern half of America. It's going to be a scary next few hours.

BURNETT: All right, Rob, thank you very much. We appreciate it -- Rob, as we said, reporting now from Tennessee tonight.

Still OUTFRONT, Israel's leader threw down the gauntlet today. And the lover of the Rutgers student who killed himself after being shown on video following a romantic encounter testified in court today.

And later a man wins a Grammy just last week, but he is keeping his day job at Shop Right (ph) and he shares his story.


BURNETT: So Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is going to be meeting with President Obama at the beginning of next week, and today he was in Canada meeting with well the Prime Minister there, Stephen Harper and he had some really tough things to say. This is important. He said negotiating with Iran is a waste of time.

He said all Iran will do is, quote, "deceive and delay when it comes to its nuclear ambitions". He also said that that so-called red line that we tried so hard to define last night, the one that says -- the U.S. says -- the one that U.S. says Iran can't cross or else, well, Netanyahu is not so interested in talking to President Obama about that either.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL (through translator): I have no intention of establishing red lines with the United States. We would like to maintain the freedom of action of the state of Israel against threats to eliminate us from the map.


BURNETT: Yes, the Iranians have actually threatened to do just that. Just last week Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi (ph) reiterated it saying, quote, "Iran's warriors are ready and willing to wipe Israel off the map." Now as much as phrases like wiping off the map make you shake your head and ask whether this is all just playground taunts, we could be near a very serious tipping point. Would Israel really strike Iran unilaterally?

Today President Obama in advance of this crucial visit with Mr. Netanyahu upped his rhetoric telling "Atlantic Monthly's" Jeffrey Goldberg, quote, "As president of the United States, I don't bluff. When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon today used surprisingly similar language saying to SKY News well "the one who's bluffing is Iran, which is trying to play with cards they don't have." So who is bluffing? The United States, Israel, Iran or frankly all three and even if they're all talking tough, tough, and tougher every day, in order to ever prevent actually having to have a conflict, does ratcheting up the rhetoric help or hurt. Former New York Mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani believes it helps.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: Instead what he should be doing is convincing the Iranians that he's serious, that if he had to, he'd bomb the hell out of them. And they should believe this. In fact, the best way he's going to avoid bombing them is convincing them in their heads that he's capable of doing it.


BURNETT: Physically capable of doing it is not in question, but after 11 years and over $1 trillion spent on two wars, one of which was based on heated rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction that didn't end up being there, the U.S. appetite for conflict is unsurprisingly low and Iran knows it. What will the U.S. really do?

We're going to get to that in a moment. But first to Tehran where today was the first election since the 2009 disputed presidential election. CNN's Ivan Watson is there. I spoke to him right before the program and asked him what turnout was like.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's pretty incredible is watching the state media here. It is just wall to wall coverage, patriotic music, and just video of lines of people voting and government officials celebrating this, calling this everything short of a divine victory. The interior minister, he came out and said that the massive turnout infuriated and disappointed Iran's enemies and their anti-Iran propaganda failed.

So there's a fair amount of celebration going right now in establishment circles. Now I went to polling stations, a few, and there I spoke with voters, some of whom were very enthusiastic, saying yes, it's my patriotic duty to vote here. Outside one I talked to two old men. One of them said, no way, I'm not voting. I voted for Ahmadinejad a couple of years ago and I'm very disappointed by how he did. So we got a split as we walked around, different opinions and you'd expect that in an election. BURNETT: And did -- what is your sense of how free the election was and also I guess as part of that, how free was social media around the election time?

WATSON: Well, if you consider that the candidates ran in the 2009 presidential election, the two leading opposition candidates are under house arrest and a lot of their party leaders and campaign activists had to flee into exile to escape jail and allegations of torture as well, maybe not the most free election.

BURNETT: I want to ask you, Ivan, though with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel coming to Washington to meet with President Obama, here as you're well aware the Iranian nuclear issue is a topic of conversation across the United States. And it's in every single newspaper. It's going to be a big issue of discussion. Is it in Iran?

WATSON: Of course it's an issue that comes up in the Iranian media all the time. The Iranian government is standing by what it says is its right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. And within the last two weeks, in fact, the supreme leader here, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he came out and said it's a sin against Islam to develop a nuclear bomb. Pretty much uniformly across the board Iranians have said listen we should have a right to develop nuclear technology. If Israel, for instance, in the region has nuclear bombs and is not a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and we are, why shouldn't we be allowed to have peaceful nuclear technology.

BURNETT: All right, Ivan Watson, thank you very much reporting from Tehran tonight.


BURNETT: All right joining me now Jamie Rubin, former assistant secretary of state for Public Affairs and Michael Makovsky, former Pentagon official for President George W. Bush. Great to see both of you -- Jamie, let me start with you. Today you know Prime Minister Netanyahu saying "time to negotiate with Iran is over. All they will do is deceive and delay and run up the clock and that they don't even want to define the red line with the United States. They want freedom of action." Are they hinting at a preemptive strike without the United States?

JAMIE RUBIN, FORMER STATE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: Well I do think both the Israelis and the United States are talking up the military option because to the extent as Mayor Giuliani said to you, I guess last night, the Iranians believe that's a possibility. It increases the pressure on Iran in combination with sanctions and maybe, just maybe, this diplomacy will work that's going to take place perhaps in the coming weeks.

I think where the United States and the Israelis really are taking a very different view now is on the question of whether it's worth while to have the international community, the United States, the European Union sit down with Iranian representatives under intense pressure of sanctions and the threat of possible military action to see whether constraints can be placed on their program to ensure that it remains peaceful. And the Israelis don't seem to think even those discussions are worth while and that is a big difference with the United States and the Europeans.

BURNETT: And I want to ask you in just a moment, Jamie, what the United States obligations would be if Israel did something unilaterally. But Michael, first to you, you worked for the Bush administration, which obviously had to sell striking Iraq based on intelligence that turned out to be inaccurate and it became an unpopular war. And now it's become an example. A lot of Americans are very, very hesitant. Is there a will in the United States to strike Iran without 100 percent proof?

MICHAEL MAKOVSKY, FORMER PENTAGON OFFICIAL FOR G.W. BUSH: Well, I think, I mean, you're right. There's clearly war weariness in the country, and we also have economic challenges. And Americans certainly aren't eager for another military conflict; however, polls have consistently shown over the last couple of years that Americans are supportive of using military forces as a last resort to prevent a nuclear Iran.

Even a recent poll by Pew also indicated the same thing, the majority of Americans about 60 percent. I think though -- I think the important thing is for, I think, the president and other American leaders have to explain is that the issue here is that we can't wish this away and that the choices between paying now or perhaps more paying later. Now of course we don't want a military conflict and we've got to do everything we can --


MAKOVSKY: -- to resolve this peacefully of course.

BURNETT: Jamie, let me ask you this question though because the president continued in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from "The Atlantic", which came out this morning, quote "I think we in the United States instinctively sympathize with Israel and I think politically support -- political support for Israel is bipartisan and powerful." Jaime, if Israel acts militarily and goes and tries to do a strike, does the United States have an option? Would the United States say, sorry, Israel, we're not going to help you?

RUBIN: Well I think it depends on the circumstances. I think if the Israelis were to strike Iranian military targets, were to destroy those targets, and the Iranian response was limited, I don't think it would be necessary for the United States to enter this war militarily. I do think the administration has sent signals that it will try to stay on the sidelines. We have no obligation. Legally there is no treaty with Israel to that effect; however, over the years at various times when Israel has faced military crises the United States has been supportive. Not every time, but some -- on many occasions.


RUBIN: I think it depends on what Iran does. If Iran were to respond with an attack, for example, in trying to attack shipping in the Persian Gulf and close down the Straits of Hormuz, I think that would trigger American naval involvement and potentially air attacks to support that naval involvement. I think if Iran responded with terrorist attacks on American interests or American troops or something to that effect, again, I think the United States would respond. So I think it will depend on how a scenario unfolds, but I think we should keep in mind that most of these scenarios very quickly deteriorate into a really substantial regional military confrontation that nobody, as you said, would like to see.

BURNETT: That's right. Well Michael, Jamie, thank you very much, both of you and of course, this weekend will be a big one and on Monday when President Obama meets with Mr. Netanyahu.

Well the man who had a sexual encounter with Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi took the stand today in the case against Dharun Ravi. Now known only as MB to protect his identity, the 32-year-old told the jury that he met Clementi in his dorm room three times in September 2010. He testified that he felt uncomfortable after one encounter when he noticed a webcam pointed at the bed.

Clementi committed suicide just days after learning that others had been watching these encounters. Ravi is accused of spying on and intimidating Tyler Clementi because he is gay. You can see Ravi right there. Paul Callan is a former prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney. He is following the case for us. Well, today's witness is obviously the man; he was, you know at that point just 30 years old, significantly older than Tyler Clementi testified and no one was allowed to hear him or see him in the court. Is that unusual?

PAUL CALLAN, FORMER NEW YORK CITY PROSECUTOR: It's very unusual. You know something really interesting happens every day of this trial, and this is a very important trial with respect to privacy rights, surveillance issues. And now we have this individual, MB, the judge wouldn't allow his name to be publicly revealed, wouldn't allow audio of his testimony or video of his testimony to be broadcast by the press, very, very unusual.

The only time you really see that happen is when an undercover police officer testifies. Sometimes in an organized crime case you might see it because somebody's life is in danger or occasionally a rape victim is protected, but never, ever in a situation like this. After all, MB supposedly voluntarily had sex with Tyler Clementi, so why would you be protecting his identity?

BURNETT: Right and he said that they met on some sort of a chat room and they purposely met for this purpose, so it was -- it was certainly consensual. I wanted to show you a picture of the dorm room because obviously Mr. Ravi's defense is he was an older man. I didn't know he was. He was in my room and I thought he'd steal my stuff, right, that's part of his defense.


BURNETT: I'm not homophobic. I'm not antigay. But I wanted to just show you the positioning of the webcam, which you can see, Tyler Clementi's bed seen on the left. Dharun Ravi's bed and desk are on the right. OK, so you can see where those arrows are coming up. And we can show you where the webcam is. How important is the positioning of the webcam?

CALLAN: Well the positioning is very, very important because this defense that I was afraid he was stealing my stuff so that's why I was taping him, obviously you wouldn't want to be taping the bed if that was the case. You'd be concerned about other areas --

BURNETT: It would be on your desk or closet.

CALLAN: It would be on your desk -- exactly. So I think, Erin that that defense is not going to fly. And I understand why the judge tried to protect MB's identity. The thought is you don't want to punish him by publicly outing him at this point in time. But you know there's a certain irony to all of this in that this law, this biased intimidation law is meant to protect gays and to get Americans to understand that gays are normal and they should be treated like every other American and yet this trial we're having him testify without his name being revealed. Are we stigmatizing him by treating him differently, MB, than we treat normal victims?


CALLAN: I don't know.

BURNETT: It's a fascinating case.

CALLAN: We'll have to se how it plays out ultimately.

BURNETT: And just as a separate note, 30 is a lot older than these kids were. I mean that is --

CALLAN: It's a lot older and a lot of people wonder --


CALLAN: -- whether we're criminalizing adolescent stupidity at a time when a kid's in college and makes a dumb decision. Jury has got a really hard road to hoe here. They really do.

BURNETT: All right, Paul Callan, thank you.

Well still OUTFRONT, Syria turns back trucks carrying aid into the horrifically punished neighborhood of Babar Omar (ph) in Homs. And the Rush Limbaugh slut controversy, our John Avlon says the entire GOP is at risk. He knows what they were saying behind closed doors today.


BURNETT: We start the second half of our show with stories we care about, where we focus on our reporting, do the work, and find the OUTFRONT 5.

In a preview to his meeting with President Obama on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said negotiating with Iran is a waste of time. President Obama also upped his rhetoric, telling "The Atlantic Monthly," "As president of the United States, I don't bluff. When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

Former State Department spokesperson Jamie Rubin tells OUTFRONT if Israel were to preemptively strike Iran, the U.S. may respond -- but this is important, the United States is not bound by any treaty to back Israel if it doesn't want to.

Number two, Syrian officials today turned away a convoy of aid trucks destined for Homs. This comes as Syrian forces executed 14 civilians in Homs according to activists. The government had agreed to allow the Red Cross to deliver medical and food supplies to the opposition neighborhood of Baba Amr.

The Red Cross told OUTFRONT, quote, "It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help. We will help them as soon as we possibly can."

Number three, students return to an Ohio high school for the first time since a shooting there left three dead. We're told the Chardon High School cafeteria where the shooting happened on Monday has been repainted, tables rearranged so that it would not look the same.

The first funeral for one of the victims Daniel Parmertor will be held tomorrow. The funerals for the other two victims will be next week.

Number four, General Motors is halting production of the struggling Volt. It came with such high hopes. During the five week stoppage, 1,300 workers will be temporarily laid off. We looked at the numbers and the sales of the Volt, it's very kind to say they have not met expectations since it went on sale. Last month, G.M. sold 1,000 Volts. However, 602 Volts were sold in January.

All right. It's been 211 days since the U.S. lost its top credit rating. What are we doing it back? Well, let's hope we don't end up like Greece because this is what it could look like, another debt downgrade, Greece's credit rating from Moody's falling to the absolute lowest rating on its scale.

Tonight, outrage over Rush Limbaugh's comments about a Georgetown law school student who testified on Capitol Hill last week about President Obama's birth control policy.

Now, this policy requires employers to provide free birth control coverage but exempts religious-based institutions by making insurance companies pay instead.

Rush Limbaugh has an issue with the free part. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.


BURNETT: That's not all. Limbaugh went on to say this.


LIMBAUGH: So, Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here's the deal -- if we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it and I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.


BURNETT: Sandra Fluke who received the supportive call from President Obama today is not backing down.


SANDRA FLUEKE, GEORGETOWN UNIV. LAW STUDENT: I know that I felt probably the way many women do when they are called those types of names, initially hurt and then very quickly upset and just outraged because someone is trying to silence you.


BURNETT: John Avlon is here, Reihan Salam, and Tim Punke, the Democratic strategist.

Great to have all three of you with us. We appreciate it.

So, John, Rick Santorum came out and said Rush Limbaugh is being absurd. Mitt Romney has not said anything. Obviously, we know the president of the United States called this woman, Sandra Fluke.

Is Mitt Romney going to weigh in? Should everybody be weighing in?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Look, I mean, absurd is a kind word for what Rush Limbaugh did. But responsible Republicans tear their hair out when Rush Limbaugh starts defining the terms of the debate.

Look, at the end of the day, Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. He's a talented entertainer. He's an influential entertainer.

But the problem is he's treated as a political leader, political leader without any sense of responsibility. And that's where Republicans get in real trouble because this new front in the culture wars has erupted, this contraception debate, that seems to many folks, especially independent women, like it's coming from another decade.

So, this is great news for the Democrats in the short run. They're picking up independent women from it. It's bad news for Republicans who have to bear the weight of being associated with Rush Limbaugh.

BURNETT: Reihan, this is -- this is a tough one, because a lot of the Republicans want to be quite about this because they're afraid of Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh is an incredibly powerful man in the Republican. That's a fact.

REIHAN SALAM, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY: There's a huge tension here because basically Rush Limbaugh does well when his audience is very angry, when they're very active, when they're very energetic, and that's actually not when conservatives are winning.

So, actually, the election of President Obama is actually a huge boon for Rush Limbaugh as an entertainer in terms of building audience, in terms of also building influence in the Republican Party. When there's an actual Republican leader, an actual Republican president, that person is going to drown out any entertainer or whoever else.

When President Reagan was in office, you didn't hear about various talk radio hosts and what-have-you being huge influencers on the political right.

So, the thing is that right shrinks, the bigger a voice you have if you're the kind of person who gets into this kind of smash mouth tactic.

BURNETT: Well, Tim, I have to say -- at a certain level, this has got to be a dream come true for the president, for Democrats. I mean, Senator Kristen Gillibrand sent out a fundraising email on this today. I mean, this is, I mean, this is sort of handing it to them on a silver platter.

TIM PUNKE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it's very reflective of what's happened in the last several weeks, which is the Republicans have just gone incredibly off message from talking about the separation of church and state, to whether or not you're a snob if you go to college. Look, this whole Republican nomination starting sort of talking about jobs and the economy. There was going to be a laser- like focus on jobs and the economy.

Now, that the economy has gotten better, and Santorum and Gingrich have kind of hung around the race, they're talking about, you know, whether or not we can engage in civil discourse and all of these issues that mainstream Americans don't care about.

And they're in real trouble. And I think it's also -- you know, you look at Mitt Romney today who can't even come out and say anything about this issue because he's so nervous about alienating the hard core Republican base, it's a real problem for the Republicans. SALAM: Well, it could be that he intends to talk about economic policy issues, right? I mean, the thing is that this conversation is not something that is controlled by any party, it is something that emerges organically as people say incendiary things and then you have a response. So, on the right a lot of people felt, wait a second, President Obama really overreached, including a lot of folks who are President Obama supporters. And then you have a response to that. People were very much on the margins of this conversation. And you say they're the ones who represent everything.


AVLON: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Reihan, the problem here is that what we have in this polarized environment is the two sides do drive the debate -- sometimes the legislative agenda.

The problem is the Republican Party or the Tea Party has allowed libertarian rhetoric, talking about expanding individual freedom, and not focusing on social issues. And then the problem is, when the Republicans got in one of the first things they did was try to defund Planned Parenthood. That makes it look it's about government just small enough to get in your bedroom and that offends folks and it alienates folks, particularly independents and women.

Look, there's a ton of pushback there. There are a lot of opinions on this. And that's the problem with a diverse society.

The basic ideas, the bedrock idea of small government conservatives is these are contentious issues and that's why they should be handled voluntarily, state and local governments. They should not be handled at the federal level. And that's the core issue.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thanks very much to all three of you. Appreciate your talking the time.

All right. Let's check in with Anderson Cooper. Anderson, what do you have on "A.C. 360"?

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": We're covering the breaking news tonight, the powerful wall of storms that dropped tornado after tornado into the heart of the country the last couple of hours. This is Henryville, Indiana, one of the hardest hit places. We'll have a live report from a storm chaser who actually took shelter there.

Also keeping them honest tonight, more lies told by the Syrian regime. My interview with photojournalist Paul Conroy. He was wounded in Homs in the attack that killed Marie Colvin. He witnessed the carnage firsthand.

Here's part of what he told me.


PAUL CONROY, PHOTOJOURNALIST (via telephone): The world has once again stood by and watched as this assault continued. I think now people have come (ph) to their gods, and accepted the fact that they will probably end up hanged.


COOPER: He calls it slaughter. We'll have the full interview tonight. Those stories and the "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Anderson, thank you very much.

And we do have some new video just coming in from the tornadoes, literally at these powerful storms are touching down. We're gong to go there live. One of our reporters just able to get to a storm. We're gong to come to him in just a moment.

We'll be back.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BURNETT: Well, we do have some new video that we want to show you just coming in from a CNN affiliate. This is a tornado, as you can see, gaining strength. You literally can see the twister there in the background of the shot. It's coming from a CNN affiliate. It then is gaining strength and heading into Henryville, Indiana.

Now population of Henryville, Indiana, is 2,000 people. The high school there was completely demolished. This is part of the ongoing tornado outbreaks in the Midwest, which have really accelerated tonight. You can see the weather map there. This is getting increasingly severe as they move west, even now some warnings in the greater Atlanta area. We talked to the governor of Kentucky earlier on the program, Steve Beshear.

He told OUTFRONT a few moments ago that there's no confirmed fatalities in Kentucky but there are people missing that he thinks will be confirmed dead. He has already declared a state of emergency in Kentucky. We were live in Nashville earlier in the hour. There have been 70, 80-mile-an-hour tornadoes that touched down and hail that have come all the way up to above people's ankles on the ground there.

So, we'll continue to follow this as they touch down. To be honest with all of you, we have trouble getting our reporter's shots up because they get disrupted by the violence of these storms. It's caused some real difficulties for our reporters out in the field today.

All right. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about a very big weekend here, "The Lorax." What does "The Lorax" have to do with a man who could be about to serve 13 years in prison?

And at the Grammys, there were rock stars, there were rap stars, and there was one winner who felt right at home behind stocking the dairy shelves at the super market. His incredible story still to come.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know a girl and a boy who's nicknames were push and shove. And between them both, there wasn't, wasn't, wasn't much love.


BURNETT: Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Kevin Mackie.

Today's "IDEA" guest is a regular guy who just realized a huge dream. His idea to produce an album aimed at helping kids who don't fit in. All about bullies, big and small, won best children's album of the year at this year's Grammy Awards.

But when 46-year-old Mackie isn't attending glamorous ceremonies, you can find him working at the ShopRite at Montgomery County as a dairy manager where he worked for the past 15 years.

He came OUTFRONT to tell us about his idea.


KEVIN MACKIE, "ALL ABOUT BULLIES, BIG AND SMALL": As a team, we thought it was the best subject we can tackle because it's so important today because so many kids are dying. There's a cure for that, and it's just education.

BURNETT: And you were bullied, you were saying.


BURNETT: This is a personal issue for you.

MACKIE: Right. I was bullied. One of the other producers Steve Pullara was bullied as a kid. Gloria Domina, another producer, is actually being bullied right now as an adult and she's in her 50s, and it caused her to have a stroke. She was very lucky to make it to the Grammys.

BURNETT: And you are going to get your Grammys soon, right?


BURNETT: What you're wearing is the nomination medal.

MACKIE: Yes, this is the medallion that you get when you're nominated. You go to the Grammy pre-party and you get this. So, it's pretty cool. Pretty heavy.

BURNETT: What did it feel like -- I mean, I know this is a personal passion for you and your team and you do this. But then all of a sudden, you win a Grammy. I mean, that's a really big deal. MACKIE: It was awesome, it really, really was awesome. Just being out there with -- you're on a different plane. It's the best reward.

We don't receive, you know, any money for this project. All money is being donated to PACER, Bullying for Kids.

BURNETT: It's all going to the cause.

MACKIE: Right. So we work for free, all producers.

BURNETT: How much time do you take -- do you and your team. When you have --

MACKIE: Hours and hours and hours and hours.

BURNETT: So what's a regular day like when you're working on the album. You go to ShopRite in the morning.

MACKIE: Yes. I would go to ShopRite, work eight to 10 hours, and then go home, work a couple more hours on the computer. Sometimes, the guys, Steve Pullara and James Cravero would be actually in the studio doing things. We all had our different assignments at different times working as a group.

And you really have to fit in all the producers, Steve Pullara of Cool Beans Music, James Cravero of East Coast Recording, Gloria Domina, a woman in domestic violence, and Pat -- excuse me, Pat Robinson.

You know, it's not just about me. It's about a whole big group of people putting all their forces in together. So I'm just like one little piece of the puzzle. And altogether, we have this wonderful team of ours.

BURNETT: And tell me about your day shop at Shop Rite. Is that something that you love or are you saying now I'm a Grammy award winning producer, I'm going to go be a big music producer?

MACKIE: It's something that I enjoy. It pays the bills. I have great benefits.

You know, the music business isn't what it used to be. So, you know, I'm quite content working there. Hey, if someone offered me a million dollars to do something, let's talk.

BURNETT: But you are someone, though, I think a lot of people look and say they do something like you do and you're saying, OK, I did that eight to 10 hours a day, I spent hours working on this and you achieve this incredible dream.

What would you say just inside you made you able to do it?

MACKIE: Anybody can do it. Anybody can do it. If you put your heart to something, anybody can do it.


BURNETT: Pretty inspiring words there.

Well, up next, Dr. Seuss's birthday. It's today. And so happens to be "The Lorax" movie premiere. That's tonight's number.


BURNETT: Dr. Seuss would have been 108 years old today. And one of his classics, "The Lorax," premieres tonight as a 3D movie.

The buzz for this movie has already launched the book, "The Lorax," to number 18 on "The USA Today" bestseller list up 153 spots from two weeks ago where it languished at 171. Pretty amazing for a book written in 1971.

And as part of this huge marketing push, there was a little junket outside the CNN building in Columbus Circle. These are the beautiful Truffula trees which the Lorax protects from the faceless industrial Once-ler who is bent on turning a profit by chopping them down.

And the marketing is working. Box office experts predict "The Lorax" will pull in $47 million in its opening weekend, from children and grownups alike.

Which brings us to tonight's number: 13. That's how many years a University of Alabama fan is facing. His crime, poisoning and possibly killing a 130-year-old landmark group of trees on archrival Auburn University's campus.

Now, to put this in perspective, former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, was found guilty of 18 counts of corruption, including trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat, and he got just about the same sentence -- 13 years for killing trees. The lesson: you don't mess with trees.

Now, this is not a political statement, it's a warning, because people are really passionate about trees. Joyce Kilmer said I think that I never shall see a poem as lovely as a tree.

We all climbed trees as a kid. We had tree houses. Trees are connected to us. Family trees, Christmas trees, tree huggers, tree climbers, the Joshua tree and its park, neon trees, "The Trees" by Rush, we have money trees, phones tree, we go out in limb sometimes.

The bottom line is trees are in our DNA and our lexicon. Don't believe me?


UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I love the Truffula trees.


BURNETT: She does and you know what? She does at that age, she will forever and so will we all. Let us know if you see that "Lorax" movie, we'll be tracking it for you.

"ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.