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Analysis of Obama News Conference; Obama Furious Over Criticism of Rice; Graham Vows to Block Any Rice Nomination; Obama: I'm Open to Compromise and I'm Open to New Ideas

Aired November 14, 2012 - 14:27   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The president of the United States wrapping up a nearly one hour news conference. His first since March over at the East Room in the White House.

Obviously, a lot more confident, showing that he's ready for another four years in the White House. And really going after Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom earlier in the day insisted they would do everything in their power to prevent Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, from becoming the secretary of state, potentially succeeding Hillary Clinton.

We have a clip. I want to just play this right now. Here is the president of the United States directly rebutting McCain and Graham.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She made an appearance at the request of the White House, in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her. If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi, and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous.


BLITZER: That's just the beginning. We have a lot to dissect right now. I'm joined by an excellent panel here in Washington. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here. Our CNN political contributor Donna Brazile and Alex Castellanos. Our national security contributor Fran Townsend. She's also a member of the CIA's external advisory board. We have our business -- our chief business correspondent Ali Velshi in New York. Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash. And our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin, who asked President Obama the second question of the news conference.

Let me start, Jessica, with you. The president clearly on fire. He was angry at these two Republican senators for saying what they said about Susan Rice. He says he hasn't made a decision on whether he will nominate her to try to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. But we rarely see that kind of bitter -- those kinds of bitter words publicly from the president going after two Republican lawmakers.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. That's about as emotional and angry as we see him get speaking to the press. He called it outrageous that they would go after the U.N. ambassador, saying that they should come after him if they have someone to target. It was as if he felt that they had provoked him into nominating her. I mean that's not what he said, but he certainly gnashed his teeth and revealed some ire there.

The president and the White House have maintained -- I should say White House aides have maintained all along that the intelligence will ultimately reveal that what Susan Rice said on those morning shows will prove to be true in the end once all is uncovered and the investigations are done. Clearly he feels very defensive of her. Now, and the question is, you know, will this provoke him and even strengthen his resolve, if he's already leaning toward nominating her, into nominating her.

I should point out, though, Wolf, there was some other news made in this press conference. We heard the president say clearly that he does not think, on the fiscal cliff, that this idea that's been floated, that just instead of raising -- instead of closing deductions and not touching rates, that will not be a go for him. He is not a fan of that option. That's a specific detail. We have not heard from the president to date.

We heard some detail from him on what he would like in immigration reform package. An admission of wrongdoing by those who entered illegally. But also some element of The Dream Act being folded in and a path to citizenship. And we also heard him acknowledge more about Benghazi. We can talk in more detail. But I did want to point out those specifics. And then, of course, on Petraeus and the protocol of when he was informed. He really, really wouldn't get into detail on criticizing anyone regarding that entire process and his notification, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he said he was withholding judgment whether the FBI and the Justice Department were correct in not informing him over these many months that the CIA director at the time, David Petraeus, was already under investigation. We'll have a lot more to dissect on that as well.

But I want to go to Capitol Hill right now. Dana Bash is standing by. Dana, here's what John McCain said earlier in the day, because I know we're already getting reaction to the president's very angry statement.

Going after McCain and Lindsey Graham on their insistence they'll do whatever they can to block Susan Rice from potentially becoming the next secretary of state. Here is what McCain said earlier.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I've said for days, weeks that --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You said you haven't gotten -- MCCAIN: It is a cover-up or gross incompetence, one of the two. It can't be anything else maybe a combination of both. The president of the United States didn't even tell the truth.


BLITZER: All right, strong words. Are you getting reaction on the Hill to what we heard from the president, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I am. I'm getting -- first of all, let me clarify, Wolf, that that was actually John McCain yesterday. You're absolutely right, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were very forceful in insisting they do not want Susan Rice to be put up for secretary of state.

And nor do they want anybody who was involved in their words in Benghazi because they simply don't trust them. But it was very clear that Lindsey Graham was watching the president very closely, very carefully, because as he was finishing, as the president was finishing, we got a statement from Lindsey Graham and I'll read it responding.

He said, Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack. He went on to say, we owe it to the American people and the victims of this attack to have full, fair hearings and accountability be assigned where appropriate.

And he went on to say, given what I know now. I have no intention of promoting anyone who was up to their eyeballs at the Benghazi debacle. This is something that was clearly written in the heat of the moment and somebody pressed send.

This is a full-on fight. Whether or not it is over the person or the potential nominee of Susan Rice or more broadly about the fact that these Republicans are very angry and they are out for blood on this issue of Benghazi.

And from their perspective, the fact that they believe the administration simply did not tell the truth on what went on there.

BLITZER: Let's say, Dana, the president holds firm and says, you know what, Susan Rice deserves to be secretary of state, he puts her name up for nomination, she has to go before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Senate has to vote, there are now effectively 55 Democrats in the Senate, if you bring in both of the newly elected independents, 45 Republicans. That's a majority if all the Democrats hold firm.

The Republicans presumably could try to use a filibuster. Here is the question. Would the Democrats have more than 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster?

BASH: You know, I think it is too early to answer that question. You would assume in general the answer would be, yes, because generally presidents get the nominees they want. But this is clearly not your typical situation.

And in fact Lindsey Graham, I was the person who asked both Lindsey Graham and John McCain the question about Susan Rice because it was clear they were so hot on this issue, and he made the point separately that he has supported the president's Supreme Court nominees when most of his party has not.

But this is a situation where they are going to go to war to try to block it if, in fact, Susan Rice is nominated or as they said for that matter, anyone else who is currently serving in the administration who they think did not do their job properly when it comes to Benghazi and the attack in Libya.

BLITZER: I want to discuss more on this with our panel in a moment. Ali Velshi, I want to bring you into this conversation, talk about the so-called fiscal cliff, this financial crisis that will develop.

The president was firm saying the rich people -- the people who make more than $250,000 a year presumably will have to pay some more in taxes, but I didn't hear that firm shermanesque line about rates, about tax rates or numbers for that matter.

You know, he was very, very willing to compromise if they have good ideas, bring them up, let's avoid this looming disaster. Give me your analysis.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, you and I worked together for a long time. I like to think I'm the chief business correspondent, but you and I were covering President Obama's speech about the economy last Friday.

And you identified the fact that suddenly absent from his discussion that had taken place all through the campaign was this discussion about rates. Going back to the Clinton era rates, going up to 39.6 percent, he hadn't said that.

So here is what he said. He said a number of things. He said for the top 2 percent, what I'm not going to do is extend further tax cuts for folks who don't need it. This shouldn't be a surprise.

Raising tax on the rich, more people agree with me than voted for me. He said it will not hurt the rich to tax them more. They will still be rich, but you're absolutely right. He didn't put any numbers to it.

He's put a proposal forward that says he needs over 10 years to raise $1.6 trillion in revenue. Fact is, you can't do that without raising the taxes on the rich. That will bring in about $1.2 trillion, $1.3 trillion of the 1.6 that he needs.

So he has -- I think when they asked him, is there a red line for you, he didn't want to say that. I think he wants to see an increase on the taxes for the rich, but he's leaving the door open to what that increase would look like.

And, you're right. He absolutely said I am open to ideas. If there are better ideas, I'm open to hearing them, but the rich will carry a bigger burden than they're carrying now.

So he's absolutely leaving the door open for increasing rates, a little bit or half as much as he wants or two-thirds as much as he wants. He has not uttered a number since he's been elected.

BLITZER: Yes. I notice that there is room for negotiation. Ali, stand by. I want to bring in our panel, Gloria, first of all, on the fiscal cliff and the taxes, the tax rates, you didn't hear a Sherman- esque statement from the president saying.

Under no circumstances will he let a deal go through unless the top 2 percent, their tax rates go from 35 percent, which is currently the Bush tax rate to 39.6 percent, which was the Clinton tax rate.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. What I was hearing was a president re-elected who believes he's got leverage, Wolf. And he's going to use his leverage. And he clearly believes in a two-step process.

First of all, he said, just get it over with, extend the tax cuts for the middle class. That's a give me, do it. The Senate did it. The House Republicans need to go along with it.

BLITZER: They say they have no leverage themselves if they agree to that.

BORGER: But he's the man that just got re-elected, number one. OK, so he's saying this is what the country wanted, just go do it. OK, then we'll talk about the second part of the process. It is very clear to me that the president would prefer the tax rates to go up to 39.6.

But he's also in the middle or starting negotiations. Maybe redefine what the wealthy is, maybe it is not people earning over $250,000, maybe it is people earning over a million. Maybe there is some different kind of combination here.

He clearly doesn't want to end the negotiations before they start. Would he prefer to end up with both capping deductions and higher rates for the wealthy, absolutely, because he wants to gain as much as he can? Is he going to say that on day one? No. He was very -- he was very smart not to --

BLITZER: That's significant. There should be some reforms in the entitlement spending, like Medicare, for example, he was leaving that open and that irritates a lot of the Democrats as you well know.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There was almost no mention of that at all, Wolf. If you're going to negotiate with Republicans, this is a country of $16 trillion in debt on its way to $20 trillion, the president never really mentioned any of that today.

It seemed to me, I think Republicans will look at this as more of a status quo message from the president. Not somebody who is really ready to tackle deficit reduction.

BORGER: Doesn't very leverage? Who has leverage here?

CASTELLANOS: I didn't hear any of that olive branch to Republicans, nothing. This was all let's raise taxes and pay for --

BLITZER: He kept saying, you know, I'm willing to compromise. If you got good ideas, let's talk.

CASTELLANOS: No, he didn't. He said he was willing to compromise on taxes and on revenue, but nothing on compromising on spending. He didn't put anything on the table.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's because, Alex, I think Republicans, the Romnesia stuff needs to end because back in the day, the president signed the Budget Control Act, which capped spending, discretionary spending.

So we already have seen over a trillion dollars, $1.7 trillion in spending cut that was put on the table for fiscal year 2013 to 2022. What the president has been campaigning on is a balanced approach.

So that we have an adequate number of revenue increases and spending cuts that has already been -- he signed it into law, Alex. He already put his name on the --

CASTELLANOS: I'm so glad you said that. He signed it into law. So he's already counting spending cuts we have already got. That's one of the problems Republicans have with this. Stuff he signed into law, he's counting his future spending cuts. That's not going to get it. There are no new spending cuts.

BLITZER: He did say -- Alex, he did say we have to take a serious look at how to reform entitlements. What does that mean to you?

CASTELLANOS: It doesn't mean much because he didn't put anything concrete on the table.

BORGER: We know what we're talking about here. We know about raising the age of Social Security --

BLITZER: All right, let's hold off on this for a moment. I want to come back to this. I want to bring Fran into this conversation. He was very generous to the FBI and the Department of Justice.

I sense internally he was irritated that nobody bothered to tell the commander in chief, the president of the United States that the CIA director was under investigation all these months.

But he did say there is FBI protocols and they got to be careful and all of this kind of stuff. But, you know, he is withholding judgment whether or not they did the right thing.

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, a couple of interesting points, Wolf. The president says he's not aware of any evidence that any leak of classified information breached national security. He's not saying there wasn't a leak of classified information. Just that he's not aware of it. BLITZER: He says I have no evidence the classified documents, blah, blah, blah.

TOWNSEND: Which would have impacted national security, the reason he hedged those words, Wolf, he is aware there is an ongoing leak investigation, which is why FBI agents were searching Paula Broadwell's home.

So he's left himself some room there. He mentioned the protocols and withholding judgment. What he's referencing is a 2007 attorney general memo that talks about communications between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal investigations.

That they're supposed to be between the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, with the White House counsel, and the deputy White House counsel. We don't know those communications take place.

And, by the way, this memo, says the most important thing is that there should be no inhibition to those communications when it affects national security or espionage, which means if somebody was hiding behind this memo to not tell the White House, they probably were wrong.

And I think the president is waiting -- withholding judgment, but likely they should have told him.

BLITZER: All right, everybody stand by because there is a lot more to do, to discuss including the president, what I thought the president's very generous comments to Mitt Romney, his former republican presidential challenger saying he would like to sit down and talk to Mitt Romney before the end of this year.

He says Mitt Romney has very good ideas he raised during the campaign. He also believes Mitt Romney did a great job during the Winter Olympic games. A lot to continue our conversation, much more to assess. Our special coverage, here in the CNN NEWSROOM continues right after this.


BLITZER: The president of the United States wrapping up just moments ago his first news conference since his re-election, his first news conference at the White House in the east room since March to be precise.

He answered questions for about an hour, a wide range of questions, but he was clearly, clearly deeply upset, very angry, at Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for in his words besmirching the reputation of the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.

They both vowed they would do whatever they can to prevent her from becoming secretary of state, potentially succeeding Hillary Clinton. Lindsey graham responding saying this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration and she's the point person is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her.

And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better and if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America. Somebody has got to start paying a price around this place.

I don't think she deserves to be promoted. There are a lot of qualified people in this country the president could pick. But I am dead set on making sure we don't promote anybody that was an essential player in the Benghazi debacle.


BLITZER: That's what Lindsey Graham said before the news conference. The president said if you got a problem with what Susan Rice said on those five Sunday talk shows, don't go after her, go after me.

And in response to that, Lindsey Graham just issued this statement, Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack.

Donna Brazile, you got a war going on here right now between the president of the United States and the two very influential members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

BRAZILE: It is one, Wolf. But there is an investigation still under way, an investigation both in the Congress and internal investigation in the administration.

And I don't understand why Senator McCain and Senator Graham would -- they issued a gratuitous attack on Susan Rice. Susan was briefed by intelligence officials. She didn't just go out there and make it up.

She didn't go out there and cover up anything. And yet somehow or another they believe that she must be the person they had to attack, attack, attack. I think it is unprofessional. It is small minded.

And, yes, the president, he took responsibility in that debate with Mitt Romney. He took responsibility for Benghazi. Why don't they wait for the investigation to make the conclusions known before they start attacking certain individuals?

CASTELLANOS: I think Ambassador Rice is not responsible for protecting our ambassadors. I don't think that was her job. If the president says that she's just sharing the information the intelligence community gave, I take him at his word on that and he was -- this was personal to him.

Obviously, this is a long relationship. We saw president today who may or may not have a mandate, but he certainly understands he has a tremendous amount of political power against a fragmented Republican opposition and he's using it right there to defend his administration. But I did hear something that I hadn't quite heard that way before today and that was the president said that when he found out that American lives were in danger in Benghazi, he, quote, "I gave orders to do everything we can to protect them."

When did he give them, to whom? Were they followed? Why was no one really protected? I think that's something that we're going to hear a lot more of in the next few days.

BLITZER: And there are a lot of questions to be answered and former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering has been invited to do this full scale State Department review, this investigation that is going on with other military and diplomatic personnel.

Fran, I know you want to weigh in on this. You were in Libya just before that attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, four Americans including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador were killed.

TOWNSEND: And I met with Chris Stevens while I was there, a really extraordinary diplomat. Look, what this distracts from, this whole debate between the president and the Hill is there really legitimate substantive questions about the number of threats in Benghazi, leading up to this attack.

Why wasn't more done, and, frankly, when you get to Susan Rice, who I too worked with during the Clinton administration, she wasn't responsible for the protection of the ambassador. It is not clear to me why in the world you put her out on a Sunday show to speak to this.

She wouldn't have been the person who had firsthand knowledge. She would have had to have relied on information provided by others and even then she wasn't the right person to put out. So this was sort of a perfect storm. It is like a child's game of telephone, by the time it gets to her --

BLITZER: Hold on. I want to bring Dana back on the Hill. Dana, very strong words by these Republican lawmakers against Susan Rice, potentially becoming the secretary of state. But a very different tune, correct me if I'm wrong, coming from them about the possibility that Senator John Kerry could be nominated to replace, to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense.

BASH: I think that's true. They certainly weren't falling over themselves saying that we would vote to approve John Kerry if nominated, but they didn't have any kind of aversion to him either. I mean, he's one of the club here in terms of the Senate club.

But back to this whole question of Susan Rice, I think as I mentioned before, I was the one who provoked Senator Graham and Senator McCain into talking about Susan Rice because the question that I asked was something I've been hearing from Democrats, which is this.

Why are you so opposed to Susan Rice after she made some potentially incorrect or what now seemed to be incorrect statements publicly when they supported Condoleezza Rice back in the Bush years for secretary of state after she clearly made incorrect public statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And that's what provoked this whole discussion. Because it really does come down to a question, it seems to me, certainly they're angry and these Republican senators are calling for a select committee, a Watergate style committee to look into all of the issues relating to Libya.

But the way that this back and forth is going so angry, so raw, it kind of is like, you know, makes you think did Barack Obama just finish his campaign against John McCain or was it Mitt Romney?

I mean, there is so much kind of latent hostility between these two camps that simply has not gone away since -- in four years. There are big issues at stake no question about that, but there is a lot under the surface here between these two.

BLITZER: It's hard to believe it only has been a week since the election. The president of the United States reaching out very publicly, very generously today to Mitt Romney. We're going to have that and more when we come back.


BLITZER: Lots of tough stuff from the president of the United States on the so-called fiscal cliff on what's going on in the post General Petraeus era over at the CIA.

Was the FBI correct in not informing him? But he did on a very different note make some very generous comments to Mitt Romney, his former presidential rival. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I think everybody needs to catch their breath. I'm sure that Governor Romney is spending some time with his family.

And my hope is before the end of the year, though, we have a chance to sit down and talk. There are certain aspects of Governor Romney's record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful. And, well, to give you one example, I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics.


BLITZER: And then he went on to say there were several other excellent ideas that Mitt Romney raised during the campaign, worthy of exploring, wants to sit down and talk to him.

Gloria, I thought that was pretty nice of the president to make those comments. I don't know how Mitt Romney is going to respond, but I assume he's the president of the United States.

He was re-elected, Romney being a great American as he is will say, I would be happy to do whatever you would like me to do. BORGER: I think if the president reaches out to him to have a discussion it is clear Mitt Romney would have it. As the president said, I don't think he's got a job in mind for Mitt Romney.

But one of the things the president may have been talking about that Romney suggested during the campaign is the question of capping deductions, which has become part of --

BLITZER: Capping deductions for rich people.

BORGER: For wealthy people and that was Mitt Romney's way of saying I'm for the middle class.

BLITZER: And the president believes in his words that is progressive. Donna, that's a progressive idea.

BORGER: So he's happy to adopt it. He's not ready to get rid of raising rates either at this point, but he's happy to adopt it.

BRAZILE: Well, he said he would like to talk to Mitt Romney about jobs and growth, economic growth, anything that could help the middle class. The president said middle class, 12, 15 times and he said has a mandate to help the middle class. That's President Obama, he's absolutely right. That's his mandate. That's the mandate that voters gave him last week.

CASTELLANOS: We can agree to disagree on that. But I think the Romney campaign is now working on pulling a great TV commercial out of that run and swing state, a little late, but --

BORGER: On the Olympics.

CASTELLANOS: It was generous of the president and politically smart to reach across the aisle to his opponents. I think what Republicans on the Hill will hear from today, a country with a $16 trillion deficit saw a president today that put nothing new on the table about how to reduce that deficit and that's going to have an impact as the negotiations --

BRAZILE: Alex, he did. He said here are the tax cuts, $849 billion, Bush tax cuts.

CASTELLANOS: That's raising taxes.

BRAZILE: Revenue is part of the bargain on how we get our fiscal health going.

CASTELLANOS: The president spent a ton of the press conference talking about revenue.

BLITZER: We got a statement from Senator John McCain reacting to the president's news conference. I'll read it to you and to our viewers. It is very specific.

I have always said that the buck stops with the president of the United States, particularly for his contradictory statements in the Rose Garden, on "60 Minutes" and later venues alleging the obvious terrorist attack in Benghazi was triggered by a hateful video or we didn't know the cause.

Those statements clearly did not comport with the facts on the ground. We owe the American people and the families of the murdered Americans a full and complete explanation, which for two months the president has failed to deliver.

Given all the facts, a select committee must be appointed in order to obtain a full and complete accounting which would be credible with the American people. So very carefully drafted statement from John McCain.

TOWNSEND: Look, Wolf, I think it is -- we have four dead Americans and including a U.S. ambassador. This is -- that is a level of an attack that really is, I won't say without precedent, but it has been many years, decades since we have seen something like that.

So it does warrant a full and transparent airing with the American people. I think that would be far more productive than the personal attack on Susan Rice, frankly. I do think the administration is vulnerable as I said.

But I think more than anything the families of these dead Americans deserve straight answers and deserve the transparency that clearly the American people want. I think that shouldn't be partisan. I think with the select committee of -- a bipartisan select committee --

BLITZER: What is wrong with the House and Senate intelligence committees doing their full scale investigation?

TOWNSEND: That's right. I'm not -- I'm less sort of focused on --

BLITZER: There is a Republican chairman in the House, a Democratic senator chairman in the Senate, let them get together. Do a House/Senate committee investigation.

TOWNSEND: You'll pardon mine and probably many of our viewers' skepticism on their ability to work on anything important.

CASTELLANOS: This president knows that he gave around order to protect people, but doesn't know anything else.

BLITZER: We have to leave it there, but we have more to digest. CNN NEWSROOM continues right now with Fredricka Whitfield. I'll be back in one hour for "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks very much.