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JOHN KING, USA

Global Outrage Grows Over Syria Massacre; Romney's Big Night; Interview With Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison

Aired May 29, 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.

Tonight: global outrage over a weekend massacre in Syria. But will it be enough to finally, finally bring tougher action against the Assad regime's brutal actions.

Also, new details about how the president and his top advisers fill their kill lists, deciding which terrorist to target for U.S. drone strikes.

And it's a milestone night for Mitt Romney, over the top in the delegate chase and side by side with an over-the-top promoter of the Obama birther conspiracy. Is Donald Trump an asset or a liability as Governor Romney gears up for the general election?

We begin with today's fresh round of angry words and symbolic gestures protesting the slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria. The United States today joined seven Western nations in expelling Syrian diplomats in outrage over Friday's massacre of 108 civilians, including 49 children in this Syrian village of Houla.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This weekend's massacre is a horrifying testament to this regime's depravity. This is clearly a way to demonstrate the international community's absolute disgust and horror at the actions taken by the Assad regime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin was among those listening as the president's spokesman denounced the killing.

Jess, I understand Mr. Carney saying this is important to show the outrage, but, forgive me, President Assad is not exactly shaking in his boots because his charge d'affaires got kicked out of the United States. What is the administration hoping to accomplish?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they're trying to send a message and it's meant to further isolate the regime there, but they acknowledge that it's really meant as a symbolic gesture and another step to reflect the international community's disgust with the regime, but they admit that this diplomatic action and really no so single diplomatic action is going to stop the killing.

And they know that.

KING: And so how do they answer the question? I know it's really hard, but when you see these horrifying pictures, one of the reasons the United States and its allies went into Libya is they said they wanted to stop the slaughter of innocent civilians in Benghazi. They believed the Gadhafi regime was planning to do that.

We have been showing pictures for 14 months now of Syrian civilians being slaughtered. Why is it different?

YELLIN: So they answer this question frequently and we still keep asking it because as you point out it's such a hard distinction to make. They say the distinction is clear.

One, in Libya, there was a U.N. Security Council resolution approving intervention. The Arab League was supportive and unified in backing intervention. And there was a clear and unified political opposition to support and push to topple Gadhafi. In Syria, they say you have none of that.

And the other piece of it, John, is -- this is not from the administration, but when you talk to sources who are well informed about the situation there, they acknowledge the terrain is very different and Assad could probably hold on to power longer and resist any NATO action longer. So any kind of ground campaign would probably last longer. And let's be honest. That would be a much harder campaign to sell to the American public right now in an election year -- John.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, Jess, thanks.

And so we come back to the question. We have asked it many, many, many times over the past several months on this program. What's the next step and when? When might the violence in Syria end?

Stephen Hadley is the former White House national security adviser for George W. Bush, now a senior adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Thank you for being here.

STEPHEN HADLEY, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Nice to be here.

KING: I want to get to some of the hard stuff in a minute. One of the hard questions Jessica Yellin just mentioned. If you were sitting in the White House today and you were watching these pictures, you would be outraged. Is the legal question enough, no invitation from the Arab League, no resolution from the Security Council?

At what point does the president of the United States or a prime minister of the U.K. or a president of France have to say, I don't care, I have to stop this? HADLEY: He has to be willing to do that. We went in to Bosnia, as you know, without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

It would be helpful to have the Arab League, to have neighborhood countries on board with us, because it will make effective whatever we decide to do. But the president of the United States has to make a decision of what is U.S. interest. You know if you go to the U.N., you are going to get a Russia/Chinese veto. That isn't an option.

I think the question is, what is in the interests of the United States? What do we need to do in that region? And I think the answer is becoming clear.

KING: Is this massacre enough to be a turning point? There are some who say, well, the Russians signed on to the Kofi Annan mission. Now that it is clearly failing, maybe they will feel some moral imperative to take it to a next step.

Do you have any reason to believe the Russians will do anything significant?

HADLEY: I don't think. And I think its not just the massacre, as terrible as the loss of life has been. It's also what's happening in that country as long as Assad stays there.

Many people say, if we intervene, it is going to cause sectarian violence to spread in the region. It's getting to the point if we don't intervene in some way, there is going to be sectarian violence. It is descending into sectarian violence.

And that sectarian violence runs the risk of pitting Sunni against Shia in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Iraq, maybe even in Turkey itself. So it's getting to the point that if we don't do something more decisive, it will plunge the region into instability and sectarian violence. And that would be a tragedy.

KING: And the question though is what would it take? You understand the intelligence. If these sources I'm talking to are correct, 24, 26 potential sites inside Syria where they have weapons of mass destruction.

People at the Pentagon, if you talked to allied government, they would say at a minimum 75,000 boots on the ground to secure those sites, to have reasonable safety. Is that right?

HADLEY: Boots on the ground is not the only option. What do you want to do here?

What we need to do is we need to pull the pillars that remain supporting the Assad regime, the military, the minority groups like the Alawites and the Christians, and business community, and we need to pull them away from the regime.

What's going to do that? We need a Syrian National Council and an opposition movement that is assumed by the international community, that has a cross-sectarian message. I believe we need to begin arming those groups within Syria that will support that cross-sectarian message.

And, finally, I think the United States is at the point where we need to prepare for some kind of intervention. That doesn't necessarily mean boots on the ground. People have talked about no-fly zones, no-drive zones, areas where the opposition could congregate and train. I think we have to prepare that.

I'm reluctant to say it. I think we have to prepare for it. One, we might need it and, two, the act of preparation, figuring out what operationally we can do, getting support in the region, may actually help tip the military, the business community and the minorities to decide we're going to go down with Assad. We better be part of a new Syria.

KING: Steve Hadley, appreciate your insights tonight.

We will keep checking in and see how this one develops in the days and weeks ahead. Thanks so much.

HADLEY: Nice to be with you.

KING: Tonight should be a huge night for Mitt Romney. When the polls close in Texas in a little under three hours, get this. I want to go over to the wall here. Remember, we have been talking about this for a long time. It takes 1,144 to win the Republican nomination. That would be delegates. Governor Romney enters the night just shy of 1,100 with 1,066.

We won't get the results for a little bit, but we know all the other candidates, active candidates are out, have dropped out. Ron Paul is still on the ballot. But let's assume Governor Romney has a decent win in Texas tonight. That's all it will take. Our projection is he will end up with probably somewhere in the ballpark of almost 1,200, 1,195 or so. Without a doubt, he will cross the 1,144.

That will make him the presumptive nominee. It will make him mathematically the Republican nominee. It's not official, of course, until the convention in Tampa, but we do know this. It is now mathematically impossible for any other candidate to win the race.

So by the time you wake up tomorrow morning or go to bed late tonight, Governor Romney will have the 1,144-plus to make him the presumptive Republican nominee. So he should be celebrating. Instead, though, this day is going to be defined at least in part by this image.

Look at this picture right here, Governor Romney coming down the stairs of his plane. Look over his shoulder there. The man whose private jet is in the background is Donald Trump. And his obsession with where the president was born very, very much in the political foreground today.

Our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta, joining us now.

Jim, just -- I have covered campaigns for a long time, as have you. From a basic campaign 101, in the book of advance, the guy who comes up to set up the event, the arrival shot, how could they have let that happen?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right.

John, that is a good question. And I have to tell you, the campaign has been asked about this. And so far, we're not getting a response. What we're being told at this point is that it was sort of a coincidence that Romney's campaign plane was parked right next to Donald Trump's plane.

You're right. The optics say that basically Donald Trump is overshadowing this campaign event that Mitt Romney is having here in Nevada. And I asked a Romney adviser earlier about this today. What gives? Aren't you a little disappointed in Donald Trump's focus on birtherism in the last several days?

And what they're saying basically, John, is that, look, if you look at the headlines coming out of swing states right now, the headlines are about jobs. Romney had an event earlier this morning in Colorado where he was talking about energy independence, jobs in the coal industry. So that Romney adviser was e-mailing me, John, press clippings talking about that issue, not talking about Donald Trump.

So they are making the calculation, John, at the end of the day, they believe voters are going to be focusing on the issue of jobs and not really worried so much about Donald Trump. And, after all, they are in a financial arms race with the White House right now. They have to go out there and get every dollar that they can.

They know that President Obama's reelection campaign will raise somewhere between a half-a-billion and a billion dollars. And, so, yes, maybe you take it on the chin today. Perhaps they weren't expecting this to blow up the way it did. But perhaps you take it on the chin a little bit, raise that money and live to fight another day.

KING: Live to fight another day.

Jim Acosta on the ground for us live in Las Vegas tracing Governor Romney's events.

And we should say he does have economic events, as well as that fund-raiser. Jim, thanks so much.

And as Jim was noting, I talked to a Romney adviser a bit earlier who said, hey, you know what, Donald Trump's image among independents is better than Vice President Biden's. so they don't think -- at least they don't think this one is going to stick as a long-term -- but we will continue the conversation, because, coming up, this birther issue, it just won't die.

Donald Trump answers some very tough questions from my colleague Wolf Blitzer about the president's birth certificate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: If the state of Hawaii says, this is official, he was born in Hawaii on this date, here it is, why do you deny that?

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & CEO, TRUMP HOTELS & CASINO RESORTS: A lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: How can you say that if the...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Now, you won't report it, Wolf, but many people do not think it was authentic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Donald Trump just won't let the birther issue go. He still questions where the president was born, in spite of a long-form birth certificate and several newspaper announcements now all in the public domain.

Here he is just a short time ago shall we say taking issue with my friend Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Have you seen the actual newspaper announcements within days of his birth in Honolulu, for example, "The Honolulu Star- Bulletin"? We will put it up there. You see the birth announcement back in 1961.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Listen to me, Donald.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Can I ask...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Am I allowed to talk, if you could stop defending Obama?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Donald, Donald, you're beginning to sound a little ridiculous, I have to tell you.

TRUMP: No, I think you are, Wolf.

Let me tell you something. I think you sound ridiculous. And if you would ask me a question and let me answer it, instead of making...

BLITZER: Here's the question. Did the conspiracy start in 1961, when "The Honolulu-Star Bulletin" and ""The Honolulu Advertiser" contemporaneously published announcements that he was born in Hawaii?

TRUMP: That's right.

And many people put those announcements in because they wanted to get the benefit of being so-called born in this country. Many people did it. It was something that was done by many people, even if they weren't born in the country. You know it, and so do I. And so do a lot of your viewers.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Donald, explain why -- so why did the state of Hawaii authorize that live birth certificate? Why did they do it? Are they part of this conspiracy as well?

TRUMP: Well, your Democratic governor who was the one that was really leading it, a lot of people say, where did it come from? And they're saying how come he didn't show it to John McCain, Hillary Clinton? It was only Donald Trump that got him to do it.

So, you know that, and I know that. And when you say that Obama doesn't mind this, Obama hates this subject. When his publisher comes out with a statement from him made in the 1990s that he was born in Kenya and that he was raised in Indonesia, and all of a sudden it comes out, I think it's something that he doesn't like at all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Wolf Blitzer with us now live.

I think you put it -- actually, that was polite, saying you're starting to sound a little bit ridiculous. I think you could have said he sounds very ridiculous.

What do you think the point is here? Do you think he genuinely believes this? Or is this self-promotion?

BLITZER: You know, I don't know, because I have known Donald Trump for a long time. I have always had an excellent relationship with him and he's a very intelligent guy and a smart businessman.

I just don't understand why he can't just let it go away and say what John McCain says or Karl Rove says or Mitt Romney says. Every major Republican says they accept the fact. They agree the president of the United States was born in Hawaii. Let's move on, talk about the economy, talk about jobs. Talk about whatever, the deficit, trade, health care. Talk about the substantive issues.

But he keeps doubling down. And now I felt that -- he's in Vegas -- he's all in on this birther issue. And I just don't understand why he's doing it.

KING: And the timing is also interesting from the Romney campaign perspective. As Jim Acosta just noted -- and you did the math -- yes, he needs to raise a lot of money, Governor Romney does. But this is the day he makes history. He becomes the Republican nominee, not officially, but he clinches it in the delegate chase. And this is a story at least driving the national conversation. Odd, to say the least.

BLITZER: Yes. It's an amazing day for Mitt Romney when you think about it. A lot of us remember when the first Catholic became the nominee of a major presidential party, John F. Kennedy, and won the presidency in 1961, when the first African-American, Barack Obama, became the nominee of a major presidential party, the Democratic Party, won the presidency four years ago.

And now for the first time in American history, a Mormon is about to get that nomination. It will be official tonight. So, on this special day, American history being made, I just don't understand why this is all going on. If it's simply to raise money, he can raise money in a lot of other ways. He doesn't necessarily just have to do it to raise money.

KING: Or why the Donald out of respect for Governor Romney's moment would decline your request to do an interview today, wouldn't have been out this morning on CNBC, would say, you know what, maybe I want to keep saying this, not today, because it's a special day for Governor Romney. But his brain doesn't seem to work that way.

BLITZER: Yes.

No, I would have expected, you know, let's not talk about this. And I did call him up earlier in the day, and I personally invited him to join me on the show. And we spoke for a few minutes. We decided -- we were talking about, would he appear on camera? Would it just be a phone interview?

It was just a phone interview. And -- but we never talked about what we were going to discuss. I never said I want to talk about the birth certificate. I never said I wanted to talk about jobs. I just said, do you want to come on and preview the big fund-raising event you're doing with Mitt Romney later tonight in Las Vegas? And he says, sure, and that was that.

KING: That was that. Fascinating conversation. You held your own. I don't know what he's trying to do here, but guess what? I bet he is going to do it again.

BLITZER: Yes. I don't understand it either. Yes.

KING: Wolf, thanks for sticking around for us.

BLITZER: Thank you.

KING: In a little bit, we will have more to say about Donald Trump, the birthers and the November election when we talk tonight's "Truth."

But next: Bob Dylan at the White House, not to sing -- no -- we wish -- but to receive the nation's highest civilian honor. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: Still ahead here: one of President Obama's fellow Democrat who says the United States isn't doing enough to stop the killing in Syria.

Also, a new report reveals the secret debates over which terror suspects get added to President Obama's kill list.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This half-hour: A massacre in Syria grabs the world's attention. So what is being done to stop the slaughter? I will talk to one liberal congressman who says, not enough.

And new insight into how a terrorist ends up on President Obama's secret kill list.

Plus, Donald Trump brings big money to the Romney campaign, but he also brings the birther issue back into the spotlight -- the "Truth" about why Romney would be best to stand up to Trump.

It's horrifying to see, but this is what a so-called cease-fire looks like in Syria. That's new video from a weekend massacre in the Syrian town of Houla. As we told you at the top of the hour, 108 died in that massacre alone, including 49 children.

The United Nations says it is -- quote -- "clear" that the Syrian government played a role in the killing. So what's being done to stop it?

One Democratic member of Congress says it's time for the international community, including the United States, to do more, much more.

Congressman Keith Ellison is a Democrat from Minnesota, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Congressman, thanks for being with us tonight.

Define much more. Under any circumstances, are you comfortable with U.S. boots on the grounds in Syria, or short of that?

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: Well, what I think we should start with is to get together with Turkey and the international community and establish some safe zones for people who are trying to flee the violence of the Assad regime.

People, women, children, men, others have got to have a place where they can get some decent medical care, where they can be safe from the bombing and the artillery and even the assassinations of the Assad regime. Turkey has demonstrated an interest in helping to provide such safe zones. And the United States needs to stand with them, along with the rest of the international community.

KING: And so when you talk...

ELLISON: I think I would start there.

KING: So when you -- when you talk -- forgive me for interrupting, sir. When you talk to your friends in the Obama White House, what do they say? What is their answer for not doing more immediately?

ELLISON: Well, you know, I think the Obama White House has got to get credit for doing some things. They strongly and repeatedly condemned the Assad regime. They've talked with international partners like Russia. In fact, President Obama is talking with Russian leaders to see if they can gets Assad to leave office, much the same way that the Yemen leader has done.

But I think that, you know, the world has seen promises from the Assad regime broken time and time again: broken with the Turks, broken with Kofi Annan, broken with various international partners. And they simply don't mean to keep their word when they say they're not going to slaughter civilians.

So I think that the -- it's time for the world to step up and stop a grievous atrocity from happening. I mean, our attention is drawn to the screen because of what happened in Houla, but they have been -- they've killed over 20,000 people, and it just doesn't stop.

KING: I want you to listen here to the president of the Unites States. He very rarely talks publicly about this issue. Here he is when it came up at the G-8 -- recent G-8 meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We all believe that a peaceful resolution and a political transition in Syria is preferable. We are all deeply concerned about the violence that's taken place there and the loss of life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You had some complimentary words a few moments ago. You remember back during the Libyan debate. Some of them were the president's critics, but some of them were even allies who didn't want the United States out front and said he was showing America leading from behind.

What is he doing here? Is he leading, in your view?

ELLISON: I think he is leading, but the president, I think, is right to be prudent, to make sure that every important consideration is focused on.

But the -- but the people of Syria need urgency. And they need the world to focus on what they're going through. You know, one of the things, John, is that of those 108 people who were killed, 49 children, many were not killed in the artillery, but there are bullet wounds to their heads. They were assassinated. This is the kind of government that we're talking about right here.

I think the president is moving in a deliberate way, but I think that he's got to weigh various things. I'm saying that the people of Syria need more focused attention, and they need it now. Not only from President Obama, but from the whole world. I call them Russia, China and all of the allies in NATO to say the time is now for the Assad regime to end and for the people of Syria to have -- to be able to live.

KING: And if you keep getting stalling tactics from Russia and China, for example, the Security Council, do you think you're trying to walk a fine line there being complimentary of the president but saying you think he needs a little bit more urgency here? If the Russians won't move quickly, what would you like the president to do tomorrow that he's not doing today?

ELLISON: Well, I think that he could set up a safe zone with Turkey. I think that needs to happen right away. You know, even joint chiefs of staff Dempsey has said -- Martin Dempsey has said that, if the slaughter continues, there may be a need for more muscular action to take place. He didn't use the word "muscular," but that's what he meant.

And -- and so I think that we are moving toward a point where, unless we do something to change the scenario, you know, the world may have to intervene militarily. I think that a safe zone to signal to the people of Syria that they do have a safe haven, the world does care about them is the right answer right now. Particularly when you have a country like Turkey, who -- who has signaled time and time again that they're willing to provide that kind of support. But they can't do it alone.

You know, China and Russia can't stop that. China and Russia got their own reasons why they are stalling and dragging their feet.

I'm glad the president has made some strong statements. But it's time to go from "isn't that a terrible thing" to "what are we going to do about that terrible thing?"

KING: Congressman Ellison, appreciate your time and your insights tonight.

ELLISON: Thank you, sir.

KING: Thank you.

Turning now to broader issues in the war on terror. New details -- this is fascinating -- on President Obama's hands-on approach to handling the world's most wanted terrorists.

"The New York Times" reports that the president has given himself the final word in a top-secret nominating process to place terror suspects on a kill list.

Here's Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence on how the commander in chief decides just who to target.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Obama is intimately involved in the discussions of suspected terrorist and the decision over who dies next.

PETER SINGER, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: What technology has allowed is senior leaders now to reach in and decide at the most tactical level, at the individual target level.

LAWRENCE: A "New York Times" story Tuesday laid out that process in great detail. When it comes to ordering drone strikes against suspected terrorists, the president is getting recommendations from various national security officials. They examine the biographies of potential targets and what opportunities exist to kill them.

JOHN BRENNAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISOR: We discuss, we debate, with disagree.

LAWRENCE: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan said drone strikes are given the go-ahead if they're fairly sure there won't be civilian casualties and they have positive I.D.

BRENNAN: We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing.

LAWRENCE: But a senior defense official says the military can target suspects in countries like Yemen even if they don't know the name of the person. Same for the CIA operating in Pakistan.

And sometimes the president overrides his own criteria. Take the case of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. A U.S. official says he was not initially considered an imminent threat to the U.S., but Mehsud got a checkmark when the White House found he was a threat to Americans in Pakistan.

But since Mehsud was home with his family, a strike wouldn't meet the criteria of no innocents killed. The official says the decision was made to go ahead, and the strike killed Mehsud and possibly his family.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is certainly the case that there are risks in terms of civilian casualties. They cannot be eliminated entirely.

LAWRENCE: Analyst Peter Singer says there are actually two kill lists: one run by the military, the other by the CIA. So there's a risk of manipulating the information.

SINGER: Where you say, "OK, this person didn't meet the criteria for the CIA list, but if we use the JSOC criteria, they do make the list. So let's put them on that," and we go after them that way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: One of the issues with having these two lists is the fact that these agencies report to different members of Congress. The intelligence committee on one hand, the armed services committee on the other. One official I spoke with today says a savvy bureaucrat could manipulate that and use it to get the advantage or get the authorization that they're looking for -- King.

KING: And so, Chris, when your sources talked about this strategy, this tactic, there's a question: has it made a difference?

LAWRENCE: In some ways, yes. You've taken out Awlaki. You've decimated the senior leadership of al Qaeda.

But on the flip side, one of the sources I spoke with said the damage to the relations with some of these countries really won't be known for years. So you could be causing some damage between relations between countries that won't really bear out until well after maybe this president is out of office.

He also said this focus on drone strikes is taking attention away from a long term strategy, a big-picture strategy of dealing with al Qaeda.

KING: Chris Lawrence live for us tonight at the Pentagon. Chris, thanks.

Donald Trump may help raise $2 million for Mitt Romney tonight. That's valuable, but Trump's obsession with President Obama's birth place, not so much. Coming up, the "Truth" about how Romney might better handle the birther issue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Tonight Mitt Romney goes over the top, mathematically clinching the Republican presidential nomination. It is an important milestone. But all but a few fervent Ron Paul supporters have acknowledged the inevitability of Romney for weeks now. So nothing big changes.

And so how is the governor celebrating going over the top? A nighttime fund-raiser with the Pied Piper of over the top.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, REAL-ESTATE MOGUL (via phone): A lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can you say that if the...

TRUMP: You won't report it, but many do not think it was authentic. His mother was not in the hospital. There were many other things that came out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Romney and Trump are raising an estimated $2 million in Vegas, of course, tonight, and the presumptive nominee told reporters last night he wasn't about to repudiate Trump's birther talk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You heard Governor Romney say, "a lot of good people." So one has to assume that means Governor Romney considers Trump good people.

"Bloviating ignoramus" was the term used veteran conservative columnist George Will used this weekend on ABC. You can decide for yourself.

But as you do, if you haven't already, I'm going to borrow a few words directly from Governor Romney. In a statement on Syria today, Governor Romney said there was, quote, "a need for more assertive measures to end the Assad regime." He then said he would ratchet up pressure on Russia and do more to arm the opposition. Maybe you agree or disagree with that. But in any event, Governor Romney should be applauded for speaking out and then for offering some firm details about what he would do.

It's a shame -- again, to borrow his words -- he doesn't see the same need for assertive measures to end the birther nonsense espoused by Trump and others.

Joining me to talk truth tonight, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker"; Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Maria Cardona; and former Bush speechwriter and CNN contributor David Frum.

I hate to do this to you. You're the conservative in the group, so I'm going to start with you.

The Romney campaign people I've been talking to all day -- and they're smart people, strategists who have run past campaigns. They say that we're nuts, that you know, sure, this is a distraction, but that we're overplaying it, that most voters don't care about this stuff, and he's going to raise $2 million, and this will soon be forgotten. Yes?

DAVID FRUM, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Most voters don't care about this stuff, and this probably will soon be forgotten. But it's a day not spent talking about Governor Romney's issues, and it's also an opportunity missed.

President Obama today made a horrible gaffe at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies. He's honoring Jan Karski, the courier from Warsaw who brought the news to the world of the death camps, and the president referred to them as "Polish death camps." They were done by the Nazis in Germany, when the Poles were occupied.

Now, that didn't make much American news. It's a huge insult to an important American ally. It's been all over the place. We could be talking about that tonight, but, no, thanks to Donald Trump, we're talk about there's egg on Governor Romney's shoes.

KING: You've been involved in a lot of campaigns. Can you stop somebody from The Donald? I assume the Romney people, whether they think this hurts them or not, on the day he's clinching -- I don't know why they had an event with him the day they're clinching, but call the scheduling department, I guess, on that one. But can you call the guy up and say, "Please, please, can you just try being quiet for 24 hours so we can have our day?"

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely you could. And you know what else you could do? You could not go to Las Vegas and have a huge fundraiser standing right next to him, because that is what's going to hurt the Romney campaign.

We're all talking about Donald Trump. But this isn't about Donald Trump. What is happening is now it becomes about Romney. Romney is now basically exposing himself as what he is: a political coward. No conviction, no spine, nothing to tell the voters whatsoever that he would have any spine to stand up to all of those leaders that he talked about in criticizing President Obama.

If he can't even stand up to Donald Trump, to Rush Limbaugh when he called Sandra Fluke a slut, and even to one of his supporters when she accused President Obama of being treasonous, how is he going to stand up to all these world leaders?

KING: That carry? Now, that's a passionate argument, a partisan argument for the Democrats. Do you think people look at that and, look, he's clinching tonight. He -- you have to applaud his campaign. Some people say it was a weak field. He got here. He won the nomination. He's not beholden to anybody, any other wings of the party, but to the point where people say he's weak or she says coward. I would say cautious.

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": I think when you're introducing yourself to the American people, your associations, who you hang out with, who you condemn, who you embrace, that matters. That's why Reverend Wright mattered to Obama in 2008.

Look, 20 years ago in June, Bill Clinton did his famous Sister Souljah moment. He was -- he went in front of a...

KING: Oh, well.

LIZZA: ... an audience where she was speaking. And she had said something -- she said something nasty a couple weeks earlier. And Bill Clinton, to a group of hardcore Democrat supporters, condemned her, and she was actually at the event. And, you know, that's something that candidates have done as they go from the primaries to the general election. They have pushed off the against the fringe of their party.

Maybe we're living in a more polarized era now. We don't do that anymore. You do anything you can to gin up your base and you don't care as much about independents.

KING: Is there a risk? Is there a down side if Governor -- his campaign -- I want to be fair. His campaign has put out statements repeatedly when we asked them: "Governor Romney has said repeatedly he believes President Obama was born in the United States. The Democrats can talk about Donald Trump all they want. Mitt Romney is going to talk about jobs."

But is there a down side for him saying, you know, "I think this is ridiculous. I think Mr. Trump is ridiculous on this issue. I could not disagree with him more when it comes to this"? Just to say that and then, if you want to go raise money with him, raise money with him.

FRUM: He's -- I think what he's afraid of is he has the conservative -- more conservative wing of his party overlooking his shoulder, waiting for the moment of betrayal. Because they -- although he has worked very hard to connect with them, they don't believe that he really is as radical as some of the voices in the Republican Party.

And they have pushed him and pushed him and pushed him for commitment. They've pushed him to a position on the Ryan plan he didn't want to take. They pushed him to endorse a second tax cut, the top rate of 28 percent, which he didn't want do. And he knows that they can turn on him. And he has to be careful.

KING: But this is Trump; this is a birther right. These are smart people who work for this campaign, and they say, you know, Trump's approval rating with independents is higher than Vice President Biden's, according to one survey out today. Does that matter?

FRUM: Trump is a hero on FOX News. And to pick a fight with Trump is to pick a fight with FOX News. And that's a dangerous...

(CROSSTALK)

CARDONA: And here's where I think the problem is. And Ryan, I think, had it right in terms of this is -- this is Romney introducing himself to the broader American public.

All of those independents, which is where this campaign is going to be won or lost, the ones that live in the suburbs, the ones who sit there and think, "Oh, my God. I don't think what -- what Trump is saying is real." And they see Romney standing with him, and not just standing with him, but not able to disavow what he's saying. That's a problem. KING: Is it -- is it maybe more proof we know the Obama campaign views it, that they view this 2004, it's a base election, and so if you worry more about your base than you do about the middle?

LIZZA: That's what I was getting at, is the difference between '92 when there were a lot more folks in the center. The politics was not as polarized, the two parties who were -- were different coalitions. Now things are much more about the base line. And that's where Romney's concern is. He got it with that clip on the airplane. He said, "I just need to get to 50.1. I'm not in the business of condemning people." It was really about tactics.

FRUM: And we need to remember independents are not the same as moderates. In fact, they're quite different. But the fastest growing part of the so-called independents have been disaffiliated Republicans. People who are too conservative for the Republican Party, who have left that way.

So when you hear that Trump is popular among independents, that's who he's popular with, and the Romney campaign is worried. How loyal are those people to brand Republican?

KING: You guys stay put.

CARDONA: It underscores what people think about Romney already, which is he's got no core.

KING: We'll take a quick time-out. We'll be back.

Still ahead, a jail break in Arkansas. Two suspected murders are on the run after using hack saws and mattresses to make a dramatic escape.

Plus Regis is back on TV, filling in for Piers Morgan for one night only, and he's talking to David -- David Letterman, excuse me, about what makes politics so funny.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Back talking politics with Ryan Lizza, Maria Cardona, and David Frum.

Texas is not going to get the attention we once thought it did. Remember, Santorum said that was where he was going to get Romney. Gingrich said that was where he was going to get Romney. It was originally Rick Perry's base of operations.

Romney clinches, but there is a fascinating test. We haven't talked a lot in this campaign about the Tea Party. You have a more established Republican, David Dewhurst, going for a Senate nomination, Perry's candidate. You have Ted Cruz, who's the state solicitor general. A lot of out-of-state conservatives like Sarah Palin, I believe, Senator Santorum have endorsed him.

Listen to Rick Perry when I asked him about this race and the stakes for him. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: There's, you know, people who come from out of state and make their endorsements known. But Texas conservatives are lining up behind David Dewhurst.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is this a test of where the Republican base is?

FRUM: It's a weird test, because in any normal year Ted Cruz, who's a federal (ph) society guy, a very elegant attorney with -- a very thoughtful writer of articles, would seem like a perfect candidate from central casting to be an establishment guy. And the place where he has been put, where he's felt he had to put himself is an odd place for him. If he prevails that's not going to be the place where he's going to be for his whole career. He's no Christine O'Donnell. This is somebody who could be a very statesmanlike senator.

KING: So is it just -- is it just because there's a race in Texas and, you know, the Senate seat doesn't come up that often? So Dewhurst, serious guy, been around a while. Cruz, as David notes, is a serious guy. Is it just, you know, everybody's jumping in because there's the one vacancy?

CARDONA: Well, I think that's certainly part of it, and I think it is also the Tea Party trying to come in and say -- you know, basically be the ones to say, "We have the message, and if you don't adhere to our message, you're going to be in trouble."

But there is a very other interesting piece that's going on in the Senate race, John, and that is a lot of money that's been spent by an outside super PAC against Cruz, basically telling everybody. The ad is about how supposedly Cruz supports amnesty.

And a lot of the Latino groups are going nuts about this, because there is nothing, to David's point, in Cruz's background that says that he has ever supported amnesty. So I think that's another different dynamic which you're going to see that could be harmful in the long run for Republicans.

KING: Just in the Texas race, or are we going to learn something?

LIZZA: I think we're going to learn something, but I think the divisions are a little muddy. You have Inhofe has endorsed -- Inhofe, Governor Perry and Mike Huckabee have all endorsed this guy. I mean, he can't be a left-wing radical. You know what I mean? It's a little -- you've got Palin and DeMint on the other side with Cruz. It's not quite clear.

KING: Perry saying he's an out-of-state conservative. So it's a test for Governor Perry. He's got to decide whether he wants to run for reelection again. He still thinks he might have a future on the national stage. We'll watch how this one plays out tonight. CARDONA: Yes, very interesting.

KING: David, Maria, Ryan, thanks for coming in.

CARDONA: Thanks, John.

KING: Our Kate Bolduan is back with the latest news you need to know right now.

And where are you hiding?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We like to call this my little black box. That's where we are today.

Hey there, John.

Hello, everyone. Some more headlines to catch you up on.

This is a very interesting story. Two suspected killers are on the run tonight after using a hacksaw to break out of jail. Now there's a manhunt for these two escapees, Cortez Hooper and Quincy Stewart. You're seeing pictures of them there. They've been missing from an Arkansas jail since yesterday when they apparently hacked through metal bars covering a tall window, pushed mattresses out to break their fall. Authorities they don't know where the hacksaw came from or how the men slipped by a ten-foot razor-wire fence.

Jurors in the corruption trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards were lectured today by the judge, who warned them not to discuss the case outside of the courtroom. This is the second closed- door session since Friday. Some observers think it raises the possibility juror -- juror behavior could be grounds for an appeal if Edwards is convicted. He's accused of using campaign donations to hide his mistress during the 2008 election.

And a wildfire that burned -- that burned 21,000 acres in Michigan's upper peninsula is only about 50 percent contained. The Duck Lake fire started last week, destroying houses, campers and cabins. Fortunately so far, no injuries have been reported.

And Facebook has been losing quite a few friends since it went public. The tech company's shares dropped below the $30 mark today, the lowest stock valuation since its initial public offering just over a week ago. The initial $38 offering price for the stock valued the company at more than 100 times its current earnings. A tough day for Facebook investors.

KING: They have a public relations on their hands.

BOLDUAN: A little bit.

KING: We'll see where that one is in six months. All right. You're a Regis fan?

BOLDUAN: I am a big Regis fan.

KING: Letterman fan?

BOLDUAN: Also a Letterman fan.

KING: Stay put. Tonight's "Moment You Don't Want to Miss." It's actually an hour you don't want to miss.

Regis Philbin back on TV tonight. He's filling in for our own Piers Morgan. His guest is none other than David Letterman.

Now, these two go way, way back. Regis always sees game for whatever Letterman throws his way, whether he's dressing up as Shrek -- you see it there -- playing referee for a street football game with Bill Murray, even hopping on a Vespa he can't quite -- I don't know what to call that. Not very graceful there, Regis.

Here's a sneak peek of what you can expect tonight when Regis asks his old friend about how politics plays into late-night comedy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, CBS'S "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": I have been guilty of appearing to be playing partisan politics. However, I'd just like to say that, for the record, I am a registered independent.

You go where the material takes you. Poor Bill Clinton. No president that I'm aware of got hammered harder than Bill president -- Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky situation. We beat up on him. We still use him as a reference.

And then we were desperate, and we thought, "Well, this was so easy." And then we got George Bush and within a matter of days, we realized our prayers have been answered. He's just as good in terms of material.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's all coming up on "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" at 9 Eastern. You're going to watch, right?

BOLDUAN: I will absolutely watch. Those are two interesting men. And I really love that from David Letterman. Equal opportunity jokester, I guess you could call him.

KING: I don't think, though -- I don't think they have as much fun with President Obama as they did with President Clinton or President Bush.

BOLDUAN: Well, you know, many of the comedians said that they were going to be short on material, but they've done a pretty good job, I think.

KING: Not going to miss that hour of "PIERS MORGAN" tonight with Regis in the chair. David Letterman there.

Thank you. We'll see you tomorrow. And if you have a question for me, either political or otherwise, I will be doing a live interactive chat tomorrow, CNN.com live at noon Eastern. Tweet me your questions, @JohnKingCNN. Keep them coming, keep them coming. Love to answer those questions.

Otherwise, we'll see you right back here tomorrow night. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.