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JOHN KING, USA

Interview With Former CIA Director Michael Hayden; Etch A Sketch Politics

Aired March 21, 2012 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. I'm John King.

Tonight, a rare defender of the gunman who killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. And Sanford's African-American city manager urges those for calling for an arrest, for the firing of the police chief to back off until new investigations are completed.

Former CIA Chief Michael Hayden maps out for us the divide between Israel and the United States on when Iran's nuclear program reaches the point of no return.

A toy from the 1960s takes center stage in presidential politics, the Etch A Sketch comment that is hurting Mitt Romney at what should be a shining moment.

We begin tonight, we will show you right here, live protests taking place in New York City for what's being called the Million Hoodie March, a reference to the hoodie Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida. New calls today for the arrest of a neighborhood watch volunteer that shot and killed the 17-year-old boy.

Martin was unarmed, walking from a convenience store to the home of his father's fiancee last month in Sanford near Orlando when George Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman says he fired in self-defense after he felt threatened, something he would be entitled to do under Florida law.

Today on CNN, one of Zimmerman's neighbors came to his defense.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANK TAAFFE, NEIGHBOR OF GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: George Zimmerman is a good dude. He is straight up. And that's why I am front-runner for him today. I, myself, credit George for thwarting a burglary to my own house.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Members of Trayvon Martin's family blame racial profiling for his death. The Sanford, Florida, Police Department's response to the shooting is being scrutinized at every level. Police questioned the shooter after the shooting, but didn't arrest him.

Today, Trayvon Martin's parents, his devastated mother says she still believes her son eventually will get the justice he deserves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SABRINA FULTON, MOTHER OF VICTIM: It's a nightmare. It's hard to sleep. Just everything reminds me of him. The only thing that's fueling us to keep pressing on for justice is the fact that we know that justice will be served.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's talk now to Norton Bonaparte. He's the city manager of Sanford, Florida.

Sir, on the city Web site the other day answering some questions about this controversial case, you wrote this: "The Sanford Police Department has conducted a complete and fair investigation of this incident."

Do you stand by that, sir, or have you changed your mind?

NORTON BONAPARTE, CITY MANAGER, SANFORD, FLORIDA: The Sanford Police told me they did conduct and complete and fair investigation.

Not being a police officer, what I have done along with the mayor and Corrine Brown, who is the congresswoman, have asked the United States Department of Justice as law enforcement officials to come in and take a look at that investigation.

KING: But that's an unequivocal sentence. The police department has conducted a complete and fair investigation.

Do you have second thoughts now? Should you maybe take that statement down? Do you doubt it?

BONAPARTE: That was a report that was prepared by the police department and sent to the state's attorney. I did not review the report. I think it is only fair to have the state attorney have a chance to take a look. If they think it is not complete and thorough review, they too will be doing some additional investigatory work.

KING: You are in the middle, sir, of a national controversy that is getting global attention. You also write this on the city Web site: "As we move forward and strive to answer the questions that are a point of controversy in the community, we ask for your patience, understanding and assistance in getting the correct information to the community."

That's an appeal to you, sir, the city manager, for patience. The NAACP says the police chief should be fired. The victim's family has said Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested immediately. Congresswoman Brown, you just mentioned her, said he should be charged with federal hate crimes. Are they wrong? Should they stand back and let these investigations run its course?

BONAPARTE: I think with the United States justice system, we have that in place to have the proper legal procedures take place. I think with the state's attorney now handling the case and the state attorney said that he is looking for a grand jury to convene on the 10th of April. These are the matters that would normally take place. It is important that we allow that process to take place. I know there is a lot of suffering, I know there is a lot of anger right now.

We have a judicial process. I think it is fair that we let the process take its course.

KING: Part of the controversy is there is at least one report that if you listen to all of the 911 tapes, there is a report that Mr. Zimmerman at one point uses a racial slur. Have you listened to those tapes?

BONAPARTE: I have listened to the tapes and I have not heard him use a racial slur.

KING: Are you concerned that race has become an issue here?

BONAPARTE: Absolutely. This is, as you pointed out, something that's national. This has hit a chord in America.

It happened in Sanford but it is only reflective of things that have happened in other parts of the country. And that's why I think it is so important that this be addressed.

KING: The police chief, Bill Lee, reports to you, sir. As we speak today, do you have confidence in Chief Lee. Should he be on the job?

BONAPARTE: What I have said and will continue to say is that I would like for independent law enforcement to review the actions of the Sanford Police Department.

Based on that review, I will make a determination on what changes need to be made. And I will do that with the facts and with the information from a law enforcement agency.

KING: Norton Bonaparte is the city manager in Sanford.

Sir, I appreciate your time tonight.

BONAPARTE: Thank you.

KING: Let's shift now to presidential politics and take a look at how Mitt Romney's big win in Illinois last night changes the race for the Republican nomination.

You notice in the middle he wins Illinois. The dark red is Romney, the purple is Santorum. The orange color, pinkish color is Newt Gingrich. If you add it all up, here is where we are right now, 16 wins for Romney, 10 for Santorum and two for Gingrich. That's the victories state by state as you go through.

What matters most in the campaign is this, as we switch maps, the delegate map. Here's a very important distinction to note tonight. It takes 1,144 to win. Look at Governor Romney, he is almost at the halfway point. Almost at the halfway point. Senator Santorum is in second place, but well behind. The next contest is the state of Louisiana.

Santorum is favored here. Let's assume -- we turned off the Telestrator -- Santorum wins, Romney would still pick up some delegates. He is starting to move. Then the contest moves north, Wisconsin, Maryland, the District of Columbia. Romney at the moment favored in those. Let's give them to Governor Romney and then for the sake of a hypothetical argument, just take away and give Wisconsin instead to Santorum.

Romney at this point is past the halfway mark. Santorum is closing in. Here is where the calender gets interesting. You move back to later in April, you see here, this is Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. If you click through what we expect to happen in those states, Romney wins up here. Let's say Santorum wins in his home state, the Romney campaign is going to make a big push for Pennsylvania, but in this hypothetical, you give it to Santorum.

You get to the end of April and have Romney approaching 800 and you have Senator Santorum still well behind. I will take it all the way to the end. If we go all the way to the end, after everyone has voted, this into August now, we're getting right on the verge, late into June, the voting, on the verge, look at this.

For Senator Santorum to win after what happened last night in Illinois, he would somehow have to find a way. Maybe he could win West Virginia, Indiana. We gave him Wisconsin here. Maybe he could win North Carolina. If he did all that, Romney still clinches.

What is the only Santorum strategy of blocking Romney? This is not for Santorum to win, just to block Romney. He would have to win California. Many people believe that's unlikely. And guess what? Even that wouldn't be enough. He would have to also win in the state of New Jersey. The governor, Chris Christie, is on Romney's side. That would deny Romney.

But most people think that is implausible. But that will be the debate as we head on to Louisiana and beyond. As Romney looks at this map and feels pretty good about it, this morning, he got some additional good news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My cell phone rang and I looked at it and it just said Jeb on it. And I picked up the phone and it was Jeb Bush.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: And he said -- and he said -- I didn't even have to ask -- he said: "Mitt, I want to let you know I'm endorsing you today." And that was good news.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That is good news, the endorsement of the former Florida governor. But it has already been overshadowed by something one of Romney's advisers said right here on CNN this morning while discussing Governor Romney's big win in Illinois.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, SENIOR ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. And everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Surprise, surprise, Romney's rivals just couldn't resist the Etch A Sketch comment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor Romney, after he wins the primary, will be like an Etch A Sketch. You take whatever he said and just shake it up and it will be gone and he is going to draw a whole new picture for the general election.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You could not have found a more perfect illustration of why people distrust Romney than to have his communications director say that the Etch A Sketch allows you to erase everything in the general election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Romney called a media avail, a one-question media avail, just a short time ago because he knew he had to address the Etch A Sketch controversy.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The issues I am running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee -- or -- excuse me -- at that point hopefully nominee for president, that the policies and positions are the same.

QUESTION: Governor, can you make a promise to Republican voters that you will not be staking out more moderate positions on the issues you have taken so far in this process?

ROMNEY: I think I just answered the question. QUESTION: But an avail is more than one just question, Governor, if you don't mind me saying.

ROMNEY: Actually, this wasn't an avail. It was a chance to respond to a question I didn't get a chance to respond to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Always bad news when the candidate has to clean up for the campaign staff.

Our chief politics analyst, Gloria Borger, is with us right now.

Gloria, maybe we will talk in a minute. You hear Jim Acosta trying to ask more questions there at the end. Governor Romney wanted to take one question there just to try to clean it up.

Let's go back to the brighter part of Governor Romney's day, which was the Jeb Bush endorsement, and it's one former governor, but it sends a signal that is greater than that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's an important former governor, very popular in the party. Somebody who by the way chose not to endorse around the Florida primary, waited.

So the question that you have to ask is, is this the beginning of other establishment or well-respected party figures starting to kind of fall in line for Mitt Romney? There are no more party power brokers, so how much it matters remains to be seen. But the question is, is this really the start of something?

And would that help Mitt Romney make the case that Rick Santorum, as you showed so well on the board, is he just a spoiler here, trying to keep Romney from getting to that...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: All these people that talk about an open convention, they said, maybe Jeb Bush would be our candidate, maybe Chris Christie would be our candidate, they are both for Mitt Romney now.

If you look at there, there's a psychological message here, too, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: All on board. Train is leaving the station. Get on now.

KING: That's a personnel way to look at it.

Let's look at some of this math. Mitt Romney has about 562 of the 1,144 delegates you need to clinch. That's more than double Senator Santorum's 249. That mean Romney needs to capture only 47 percent of the remaining delegates. Senator Santorum would have to grab more than 70 percent of the remaining delegates. The math gets more difficult by the day, almost impossible for Santorum.

BORGER: The math gets almost impossible, particularly as you point out that Mitt Romney can sustain the momentum he had last night if he wins some states coming up, particularly in April, which could be a very, very good month for him.

And then if Rick Santorum were to remain in, the question would be, could he sustain a candidacy during what could be sort of an eight to 10 week lull for him until you get to the end of the process with some more conservative states, like Arkansas, for example, Texas, for example, where he might be able to pick up more delegates.

It is very difficult to see how he would sustain any kind of momentum. But until Mitt Romney gets to 1,144, some folks are going to say, you are not there until you crawl across the finish line.

KING: Will some folks if Santorum reaches the point where he can't get to 1,144, where it is impossible to get to 1,144, even if he won 100 percent of the delegates, which nobody will ever do -- but if we have a day where if you say here's 100 percent of the left, it wouldn't give you 1,144, then do people try to twist his arm?

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: That will be. We have had many tipping points in this campaign. But I think that would be another tipping point in which people would say, OK, look, there aren't enough delegates left for you to win a majority of the delegates, so what are you in this for, if nothing else, other than to be a spoiler? That will not help the Republican Party.

At that point, maybe Santorum would have to give it up. But talking to his campaign, they say, relax. Illinois was one state. We have a long way to go. But I think the climb gets steeper and steeper.

KING: We are going to talk more this a little later in the program. But maybe they can find a way on their Etch A Sketch to find a way to 1,144.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Or their abacus.

KING: Up next here, the former CIA chief, Michael Hayden, maps up the point of no return for Iran's nuclear program.

Later, an airline flight you will be very happy you missed unless you are one of the unlucky few -- want to be stranded in Alaska without your luggage?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was just one thing after the other. It was honestly unbelievable. Like, we couldn't believe it. Yes, it definitely was the flight from hell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: When President Obama approved the raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, he did so based on intelligence that suggested the leader was at the Pakistan compound, but what was far from certain.

Would he take the same risk if his advisers said they believed but could not prove definitively that Iran was taking the key step towards developing a nuclear weapon? Iran's supreme leader says it is a non-issue.

But he attaches a warning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, SUPREME LEADER OF IRAN (through translator): We do not have nuclear weapons and we shall not build nuclear weapons, but should the enemy be aggressive towards us, whether the United States or the Zionist regime, we will respond and reciprocate proportionately.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But in a provocative essay for CNN.com, the former CIA Director Michael Hayden calls it perhaps the most consequential question of the Obama presidency.

General Hayden is with us here to consider the stakes.

Is it a real threat? Can they attack here in the domestic United States?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Not with intercontinental ballistic missiles, not yet anyway.

But they do have a very aggressive ballistic missile program. Even in 2007, John, when we talked about certain aspects of the nuclear weapons programs being halted, we tried to point out to everyone concerned, other things were continuing, development of fissile materials and development of long-range ballistic missile delivery systems. Both those things continue apace.

KING: Both those things continue apace.

One of the questions is, in your essay, you talk about how Israel has a shorter calender. The Israeli government has to make a decision, do they trust the United States? Because if they do, then they can wait longer. If they don't trust that United States will act, Israel might choose to strike.

These are some of the suggested flight paths. One would go across Saudi Arabia. I don't know if that is feasible. One would go across Jordan and Iraq. How likely do you think -- when it the timetable? Prime Minister Netanyahu, fresh from his meeting with President Obama, trying to decide, will the United States back me up, what's his final deadline?

HAYDEN: It is really hard to tell.

But I think I can say with some degree of confidence, each day, the window opening is getting a bit smaller. That target out here is getting more dispersed, more hidden and more developed and more hardened like the under mountain.

KING: Let's look at right here. Let's bring it up. You see the mountain. If you look at the satellite images, you see an above- ground complex here. But you know this better than I do. You see these entrances. What's down there?

HAYDEN: Well, the IAEA suggests they already have centrifuges there. They are developing low enriched uranium there.

But of course it just takes an act of will to use the same machines to create HEU, which is a precursor to a weapon. They're moving more stuff there. The longer time goes by, more of the target that the Israelis would want to strike if they made that decision goes into that mountain and is not quite totally beyond Israeli reach, but it becomes infinitely more difficult.

KING: More difficult, you say. Now, that's Qom. Let's throw out this one. This is the complex that sees a lot of attention lately, if you look at the satellite images, giant berms built around here, and you see the structures a bit recessed into the ground, clearly something underneath.

A lot of people look at this and they see a facility where you could have a test. Do you?

HAYDEN: It's a facility where we believe, where at least the IAEA has suggested they are testing the components that they would have to have to develop a feasible nuclear weapon.

They are testing it with conventional explosives that are used to detonate the system. This has become a mystery site. It is very clear why the IAEA wants to go there, because there are some things that if they saw them there, there would be no other alternative explanation other than that the Iranians are on this trajectory towards a weapon.

KING: In your essay, you talk about this in I think a provocative way, but one hopefully people can understand it better. You treat it like an algebraic equation. Y to the president is, what are Iran's intentions? And he can't answer that question fully yet. Correct?

HAYDEN: Right.

That's correct. The view of American intelligence, and I think it's generally well known that American and Israeli intelligence agree on the facts, but we make slightly different assessments on the facts, but we agree on the facts.

And right now, beginning in 2007 and it's continued through to the current day under three different directors of national intelligence, three different directors of the CIA, the Iranians have not yet made that final decision to weaponize their efforts.

KING: For us, why...

(CROSSTALK)

HAYDEN: Have the Iranians made a decision?

Now, for the Israelis, this equation, they're solving for X. They know why or at least they believe they know why, what the Iranian intentions are. They're solving for X. And X for them is what is it we intend to do about this?

KING: How long will they wait? How long will they let whatever is happening here go on?

HAYDEN: That's unknowable.

In fact, it may even be unknown to the Israelis, because they have got to sort through a whole host of issues on their own. But as we go through this year, 2012, go through the summer and approach fall, the window of opportunity the Israelis might have gets much, much smaller. The impact of a strike becomes a great deal less.

KING: You are talking about a closing window right as we get to the entrance of a presidential election.

HAYDEN: You couldn't make this stuff up. John, you could write it in an exercise scenario and people would throw it out as being too fantastic.

KING: General Hayden, appreciate your time.

HAYDEN: Thank you, John.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Coming up, the truth about Mitt Romney and the Etch A Sketch.

But next, word a blockbuster trade in pro football may be on hold.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: Coming up, President Obama hits the road to defend his energy policies, but his Republican opponents blame him for high gas prices.

We will have details.

Plus, get this. A flight to Shanghai strands passengers in Alaska for days -- the travel story from hell straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This half hour, you won't believe what a major airline made a plane load of passengers go through. They're calling it the flight from hell.

And President Obama heads west to talk about alternative energy. But is he on offense or defense?

Plus, the truth about the 2012 presidential campaign you can draw on an Etch-A-Sketch.

In the words of one passenger, it was, quote, "the flight from hell." What was supposed to be a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Shanghai instead turned into a two-day nightmare for 262 passengers, broken toilets, no clothes, passengers without their medications, and when a second plane finally arrived to rescue the stranded passengers, guess what? It, too, was grounded with mechanical problems.

CNN's aviation correspondent, Lizzie O'Leary, has been sorting out the details. I guess I shouldn't be smiling.

LIZZIE O'LEARY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This -- it is ironic in the level of things that went wrong but probably not fun. So when we look at how all of this went down, it happened on Sunday, and this is United Flight 857. Eight-five-seven. It was three hours into its flight to Shanghai when the captain announced the lavatories weren't working. The flight was going to divert to Anchorage, Alaska, for repairs.

Well, passengers assumed that would be routine maintenance. It became anything but. Ninety minutes on the tarmac and then four hours waiting for an update. Eventually, passengers were told they'd go to a hotel for the night and a replacement plane would come the next day, Monday. So all 262 passengers mobbed the airport terminal at 11 p.m. at night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was just one thing after the other. It was honestly unbelievable. We couldn't believe it. It was -- yes, it definitely was the flight from hell. About 300 of us, and we kind of -- in a mob at the north terminal. Then we walked over to the south terminal, and you know, all the United officials seemed to conveniently disappear. We couldn't find anybody to help us. There was no one there. There was no one working the United counter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'LEARY: So the next day, passengers boarded a new plane they thought would be their savior. But then that plane had trouble, too. The captain came on the P.A., called it ironic. That plane never left Anchorage. Passengers stayed another night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no communication. The fact that they wouldn't give us our luggage after it had been almost three days is ridiculous. The fact that they weren't letting people change their clothes or, you know, get their medications, et cetera.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'LEARY: So on day three, she and some other passengers opted for a red-eye flight home. She's already missed her meetings in China. The luggage went, though, without her.

So we reached out to United Airlines. They sent us a statement that reads, in part, "We sincerely apologize to our customers for the delays and are fully refunding their tickets. We're also actively reaching out to our customers to offer additional compensation."

John, so it might not sound so great, but actually, this is perfectly legal.

KING: Perfectly legal? Perfectly legal?

O'LEARY: Yes. This doesn't violate the Passenger's Bill of Rights, which of course....

KING: How do you have a two-day, three-day hostage crisis, you can't get your luggage, and it doesn't violate the Passenger's Bill of Rights?

O'LEARY: Because a lot of what that was about was, remember, all of those planes that sat on tarmacs for two, three, four, five hours at a time. Well, you can't do that anymore. But this is not exactly what happened here.

Sure, they stayed overnight. But they got off the plane after about 90 minutes on the tarmac. Yes, they spent the night, but they did get hotel vouchers. So there is no law against a good old- fashioned screw-up. But there is if you have to sit on the ground for a long time.

KING: I suspect United will get a lot of complaints about this. And I think some people might want to go back and tweak the Passenger's Bill of Rights a little bit. At least maybe say, we can have our luggage?

O'LEARY: Maybe that.

KING: Lizzie O'Leary, thanks.

The GOP on the attack, and rising gas prices cutting into the president's political capital. Well, the president is on the road focusing on his energy policy. Stops in key swing states over the next couple of days. One of the visits today was at a solar panel plant in Nevada, where he tried to define the balance between drilling for gas and oil and producing renewable energy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They don't need additional incentives. They are doing fine. It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that's rarely been more profitable and double down on investments in an energy industry that has never been more promising.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is with the president in Boulder City, Colorado. Brianna, define this. Is this a president on offense or a president playing political defense?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, President Obama certainly is using some pretty sharp language. He again today accused Republicans of being part of the Flat Earth Society for not supporting renewable energy like solar, the way he does.

But it appears that this energy tour is very much a defense of his policies and trying to rebut Republican criticism. For instance, right now, he's on his way to New Mexico. He'll be at an oil field on federal land, as if to answer those Republican claims that he's not doing enough when it comes to oil and gas.

And then the headline tomorrow, something that we first broke here on JK USA yesterday and that the White House made official today, is that he will announce he's using executive action to expedite the southern section of that controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, clearly trying to rebut Republican criticism over his administration delaying the progress on the northern part of that pipeline from Canada into the U.S., John.

KING: And Brianna, as he does that, and says go ahead with the southern portion of the pipeline, is there any indication he might ultimately move forward with the more controversial section, the northern section of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

KEILAR: That is really the outstanding question. It is the hope of those in the oil industry; it's the fear of environmentalists. The White House, John, won't answer that question. But as the president is feeling pressure on both sides of this issue, he's definitely leaving his options open.

KING: Coming out west with the president, Brianna, thanks so much.

While the president is on the road, his economic team back at the White House is weighing all possible options. They're hoping they can ease your pain at the pump as quickly as possible.

A bit earlier, I spoke with one of the president's top economic advisers, Gene Sperling.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: The president is on the road today. While you were at the White House, the president is out there promoting his views on energy. As you know, Gene, gas prices have been going steadily up since the beginning of the year, jumping dramatically over the course of the past month.

When you meet with the president and give him economic projections through the spring, into the summer and into the fall closer to the presidential election, where do you see the price of gas, say, around October 30?

GENE SPERLING, ECONOMIC ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT: I'm not going to try to make those type of predictions, John. I think people can look at the futures market and get some idea of what right now people in the market see. And of course, we see gas prices, at least for the next couple of months, being too high. As you know, they're at $3.86 now.

But what this president is committed to, as he has said repeatedly, is an all-of-the-above strategy. Obviously, part of those higher gas prices have come from a certain amount of risk premium that people feel in the world concern over Iran and Israel and other hotspots in the world.

But one very important thing to remember, John, is that this president fought very hard and, in fact, would not let anybody go home for the Christmas break until they passed the payroll tax cut. That payroll tax cut put an extra $1,000 in the pockets of a typical American family. That's very important. Because what it means is that, while it is very unfortunate that families have to pay extra at the pump, the tax cut that the president fought for and achieved is actually significantly above the extra amount of money people are paying at the gas pump.

That's still unfortunate. But it does mean that the president did fight for tax relief that will help most families deal with these higher gas prices. But we obviously will be doing everything we can to moderate them, everything that is possible going -- presently and going forward.

KING: Is there anything the president can do that you've recommended in the short term that would bring prices down, not tomorrow but a couple of weeks or a month from now?

Well, we explore every option, and we have many options on the table. We're exploring many potential things that we could do that could have some moderating effects in some region.

But we have to be very clear. You know, our problem, our dependence on the price of global crude oil is unwise for this economy. That's why the president has made it such a priority to do things like set a very historic plan over the next decade or so to bring fuel efficiency to 54 miles per gal. That would actually reduce our dependence on oil by over 2 million barrels a day.

That is the kind of significant thing we can do as a country so that going forward as a nation, we are not so dependent on global oil, and therefore, the unrest in parts of the world that can create more risk, drive oil prices higher, and make Americans have to face higher gas prices at the pump.

KING: Gene Sperling, he's the director of the National Economic Council at the White House. Thanks for your time today, Gene.

SPERLING: Thanks, John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Coming up, the "Truth" about why Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich bought one of those, an Etch-A-Sketch, today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK )

KING: We'll get you straight to some breaking news in Toulouse, France, where explosions were reported at the scene of a police siege of a man suspected in a string of deadly shootings. Let's go straight to CNN correspondent Dan Rivers, who's keeping an eye on the situation right here on the ground in Toulouse.

Dan, what's the latest? What do we know about these explosions?

DAN RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, just a few minutes ago, three loud explosions. And you can see flashes in the sky. Now, we don't know what they are. There's no word here from the police on the ground as to what's going on.

It sounded to me like the kind of noise that a kind of flash bang would make as if they were going into the building that they had surrounded for more than 18 hours now. But we don't know. And I stress that we don't know if they're doing rehearsals or there's a controlled explosion or something completely nonrelated to this. But certainly, pretty ominous sounds.

And this whole area has been cordoned off since 3:30 in the morning here. It's now almost midnight here. It's gone on an awfully long time, and the whole of France is really holding its breath to see what happens to this man, Mohammed Merah, who is being holed up in there after killing seven people in the most brutal fashion in the last few days. And everyone is waiting to see how this siege now ends.

KING: And Dan, as you know, we're 18, 20 hours long, this siege is going on. No question, police frustration. Have the police been communicating much at all? I know at one point, they were in communication with the suspect. Has that broken down?

RIVERS: Yes. We haven't had any for a while. They have been in communication with him and, you know, said that negotiations had kind of stalled.

But before that, they said that Merah had said that he had no regrets about the killings, that he was planning on killing more soldiers.

We know a little bit about his background, this man, as well. We think he was in Afghanistan, that he had been before the courts here in Toulouse two weeks ago on a myriad (ph) of motoring offense. And he, crucially, was known to French intelligence. They had him under surveillance for a period.

And that is going to be a really controversial issue, as the French presidential election is just a few weeks away. Why did they drop the ball on this? Why didn't they keep him under surveillance? How was he allowed to go on and kill in the manner that he did?

KING: Dan Rivers, on the ground for us, live in Toulouse. We'll continue to track this. Dangerous -- dangerous-sounding explosions not that long ago. Dan will be there, and we'll go back to Dan as breaking news develops. Thanks so much, Dan.

When we come back, we're going to shift back to American politics here on the campaign trail. Why today's Etch-A-Sketch moment defines presidential politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This will be remembered as Etch-A-Sketch day, Campaign 2012. Today this toy from the 1960s suddenly became more potent than a viral video or a scathing attack ad. See? Rick Santorum has one. Newt Gingrich, too.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have to stand for something that lasts longer than this. People -- people aren't stupid. And so we have a real challenge, and we need your help this Saturday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Why the Etch-A-Sketch? Well, tonight's "Truth" is some unsolicited advice for the Romney campaign. Advice that's about to get me in trouble with the CNN management and my wonderful colleague, Soledad O'Brien.

Here it is: the morning after a big win, team Romney, don't go on Soledad's program, "STARTING POINT." For team Romney, "STARTING POINT" equals stumbling block. Remember this, the morning after Romney's big Florida win?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It took a while to clean that one up. And today, after a huge Illinois win, it was top Romney adviser Eric Bergstrom who joined Soledad and promptly stepped in it.

The question: are you worried the long primary season is forcing Governor Romney to tack so far right that it would alienate moderates in the general election? And the answer?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIC BERGSTROM, ROMNEY ADVISOR: I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch- A-Sketch: you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Oh, my. That's a galactically horrible answer when the knock on your candidate is that he has no core and has a history of shifting positions. One more time, then the fallout.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERGSTROM: I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch: you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, if you look at the delegate map and the races ahead, it's almost impossible to map out a Rick Santorum comeback, but he sure appreciated the help.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: Just shake it up and it will be gone. And he's going to draw a whole new picture for the general election. Well, that should be comforting to all of you who are voting in this primary. That whoever you're going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The Etch-A-Sketch moment not only started trending on Twitter; it created the strangest of bedfellows: team Santorum, team Gingrich and team Obama, @DavidAxelrod gleefully tweeting, "Forget everything you know. Forget everything you've seen. Coming soon, Mitt 5.0."

Yes, it was an aide, not the candidate. But as blunders go, this is a doozy, and timing is everything in politics.

Today's political conversation should be dominated by Romney's big Illinois win and his daunting lead in the delegate chase. But instead, well, let's just say anyone talking politics had to shake up the plan and start all over again.

Here tonight to talk truth, Republican strategist John Feehery; Romney campaign adviser Bay Buchanan -- good luck, Bay -- and CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala.

You've all worked in many campaigns. And it is a bad day for a campaign -- sometimes the staff has to go out and bail out the candidate. It's a bad day when the candidate has to go out and bail out the staff. So let's listen. Governor Romney not that long ago knew the press wanted to ask this question and more importantly, he knew he needed to answer this question. So he met with the press and he took one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: When the campaign moves to becoming a general election campaign, the nature of the campaign itself in terms of staff, funding, the states we go to, will be different than today, obviously. It's a much larger campaign. Fundraising numbers are very different. We now work with the Republican National Committee instead if apart from any committee of that nature. So organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile.

The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative Republican governor. I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee -- excuse me, at that point hopefully, nominee for president. The policies and positions are the same.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Governor, can you make a promise to -- can you make a promise to Republican voters that you will not be staking out more moderate positions on the issues that you've taken so far in this process?

ROMNEY: I think I just answered the question.

ACOSTA: But an avail is more than one question, Governor, if you don't mind my saying.

ROMNEY: Actually, this wasn't an avail. It was a chance to respond to a question I didn't get a chance to respond to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You can hear our Jim Acosta trying to get a second question into Governor Romney but he decided no. Bay, since you're a Romney campaign advisor, I want to go to you first.

I just first want to say I appreciate what Governor Romney is trying to do there: spin is a valuable tool in politics. He's trying to spin this into a question about organizationally in the general election. The specific question to Eric Bergstrom was, "Are you attacking too far to the right now because of Gingrich and Santorum?" That's not the question Governor Romney answered.

But so be it. That's -- when the candidate has to bail out the staff, what's that mean?

BUCHANAN: It's a bad day. But you know, listen, if you look at what Eric said, clearly the words he used, Etch-A-Sketch, is going to end up in political lore over the years. People are going to refer back to it, and Eric's going to have to live with it.

But clearly, what he meant was -- was exactly what Romney was saying there, what the governor was saying there, and that is it's a whole new game. And anyone who's been in politics knows that a primary election is completely different than a general election.

And in fact, up to now, and I've heard you ask many times, John, and a lot of your colleagues, is he conservative enough. And now what are you saying? As of this morning, what do I hear? He's too conservative. Isn't he too conservative.

Things are all different now, aren't they, because we're looking at a general election? And that's what Eric was trying to say. Everything is a different -- a different strategy. That's what we're looking at.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They should double Bay's pay first. Seriously, going back to the Reagan days, never had a day this bad.

BUCHANAN: Come on.

BEGALA: You've never had a day this bad.

KING: I remember a couple of it.

BEGALA: I've made bigger mistakes than Mr. Bergstrom. I have a different take. It wasn't a mistake,. It was a deliberate seed he is planting to try to mislead moderates and independents in the general election that somehow Mitt Romney is not the guy who is going to end all funding for contraception, not the guy who's going to cut taxes for millionaires like himself and destroy Medicare. He did this on purpose, John. They did this on purpose. Romney is going to try to lie to moderates.

KING: They do -- they do this on purpose the day after what should have been a great moment for Governor Romney, have a point where the candidate has got to clean it up?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He didn't do it on purpose, but he's right in a sense that it's going to be a different campaign. It's going to be a different set of issues.

KING: But if you know the knock on your candidate is that he does this when he needs to politically -- fair or unfair, that's the knock on Governor Romney. When you know that's the knock, why would you ever use that metaphor?

BUCHANAN: What he was saying, John, is "I'm not going to answer your question. I'm not going to buy into all this nonsense." Is he too conservative or not conservative enough?

What he was saying is, look, everything changes now. We have a whole new campaign, and that's what we're going to run. But in fairness to Governor Romney, what has he run for the last ten months? He has hit three top issues for the voters: economy, jobs and too much outrageous spending. And that's what he's going to run right to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Nothing changes on that message.

BEGALA: I think Romney -- I think that the attack on him as a flip flopper is the wrong attack. There is remarkable consistency in Mitt Romney. He's the millionaire CEO governor son of a millionaire CEO governor whose whole life has been about enriching himself and his buddies and screwing the middle class. He was that way in business. He was that was as governor. He's that way as a presidential candidate. God forbid he becomes our president. He is remarkably consistent.

BUCHANAN: You have a problem with self-made men? Because he's made...

BEGALA: By laying people off and canceling their health benefits and shipping jobs to China? I have a big problem with that. He's been remarkably consistent. He's all about the benjamins and all about the...

BUCHANAN: You can see they're getting ready. We are in a general election.

KING: And they are getting ready. They see this as the general. Do you have any doubt about that? Was last night, despite the little Etch-A-Sketch detour, any question about who the nominee is?

FEEHERY: Jeb Bush is saying he's going to support Mitt Romney finally. That was the big news of the day. This is not the big news. The fact of the matter is, this campaign is over. Rick Santorum should get out. We should get on to the general campaign so we can start talking about the economy and making that the big issue. That's what I would hope would happen.

KING: Start rebutting Mr. Begala on whatever he said. He'll say it again between now and November.

FEEHERY: Don't worry, you'll hear more.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Thanks for coming -- thanks for coming in today. You all get a free Etch-A-Sketch. At C-SPAN they give you a mug. We give you an Etch-A-Sketch.

BEGALA: Obama is the iPad guy.

KING: Kate Bolduan is back to help us with the latest news you need to now right now -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, John.

Everyone, quiet time, news time.

Football news, everybody. The NFL pounded the New Orleans Saints over its so-called bounty program, penalizing the team's head coach Sean Payton with a one-year suspension without pay. The Saints general manager is suspended for eight games while its former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, is out indefinitely.

The NFL made its ruling after revealing that the Saints were paying its players a bounty for intentionally injuring players on opposing teams.

And a strange mystery is unfolding in Clintonville, Wisconsin, where residents are getting shaken up by loud booms and explosions. This has been going on since Sunday night, but no one can figure out what's causing the noise. Right now city officials are meeting with residents. The city says it's checked water and gas lines, the dam and the landfill, mines and quarries and even contacted the military. I don't think there's much more they can check. But still, they don't know where it's coming from.

Do you remember the 280-Z by chance? Thirty years after Nissan phased it off the road, the Datsun brand is making a comeback. The company's CEO announced the low-cost car will return in 2014, starting with sales in Indonesia, India and Russia. There are also plans for a green line of Datsuns in the future.

Everyone loves a comeback story, John.

KING: So wait, if I want a 280-Z, I've got to go to Russia?

BOLDUAN: Yes.

KING: Is that true?

BOLDUAN: We let out the important part of it's not coming here any time soon.

KING: I'm old enough to remember when the 280-Z was pretty cool. I don't think you are, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Let's not start with the age jokes. You know I always win those.

KING: It's not a joke. Wow. All right, you win.

We'll see you tomorrow. That's all from us. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.