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Rice Returns to the Hill; Interview with Senator Johnny Isakson; Powerball Dollars and Dreams; Stubborn Battle Over Fiscal Cliff

Aired November 28, 2012 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Morning. Welcome, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning, not satisfied. The U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, will return to the plate today after striking out, essentially, with Republicans on Capitol Hill over Benghazi. Will she have better luck today?

Are you feeling lucky yourself? People are already dreaming about how they are going to spend half a billion dollars. That's a little less than that really after taxes. Record Powerball drawing tonight -- live in Times Square. Talking to some of those folks who are dreaming big this morning.

And she sold 100 million records and not stopping there. Dionne Warwick joins us as she celebrates 50 years in the music business.

It's Wednesday, November 28th, and STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT team this morning: Ron Brownstein is editorial director at "National Journal." Roland Martin is the host of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin" on TV One.

Why do I laugh every time you do that?


O'BRIEN: And every time I laugh.

Will Cain is from You've got to come up with something else.


O'BRIEN: Not that, please?

Christine Romans sticks us around with us as well.

Our STARTING POINT is the lion's den and going right back into it.

The U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice will return to Capitol Hill this morning, little more face time with Republicans. She's hoping, probably, for better results that she had yesterday after she failed to placate three of her harshest GOP critics over the comments that were made in the afternoon of the Benghazi consulate.

CNN's Elise Labott is in our Washington bureau with details. Elise, good morning.


Well, should the President nominate her, Ambassador Rice is certainly getting a chance to sharpen those diplomatic skills. Her main critics, Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte yesterday said they left their meetings with Ambassador Rice more concerned than before. Why? Because information that the CIA had about a possible al Qaeda link to the Benghazi attack.

Now, if you remember, those unclassified talking points the ambassador used in her talk show appearances provided by the CIA were stripped of those references to al Qaeda and that information was classified so it couldn't be made public.

Now, after the meeting, Ambassador Rice said the administration never intended to mislead the American people. But the senators are arguing Ambassador Rice should have been more discerning when she went on those talk shows, because as a cabinet member she receives intelligence briefings. She told them in the meeting she was aware of this possible al Qaeda link and a Secretary of State, should she be nominated, needs to be more independent and not just tout the party line.

But Ambassador Rice isn't without her critics -- without her supporters, Soledad. White House and Democrats on the Hill still standing by her and Homeland Security chairman, Joe Lieberman, Senator Lieberman, also met with her yesterday and said he was satisfied she did nothing that could disqualify her from Secretary of State, should the President nominate her. Unfortunately for her, Senator Lieberman is retiring this year so he doesn't get a vote.

Today, she meets with Senator Susan Collins, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and Senator Bob Corker, Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Both of them said they have some concerns but are willing to hear her out, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Elise Labott for us in Washington, D.C. -- thanks, Elise. Appreciate it.

Let's get right to the Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which will vote to confirm the next Secretary of State once there has been a nomination.

It's nice to have you with us, sir. Thank you for being with us.

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON, (R) GEORGIA: Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You have said in the past -- I'm reading off your press release on Saturday, October 27th. You said this, "It's becoming more apparent that the administration's lack of truthfulness seems to emanate from a desire to hide something from the American people." You said this along with Senator Corker, I should add.

"Almost two months has passed. It's time for the President to timely come clean and order the administration to fully disclose all the communications relevant to the security situation in Benghazi. Surely the deaths of four civilian public servants warrant that action."

Do you think that Ambassador Rice, rather, should be kept from being Secretary of State because of her role in all of this? Do you think it's elevated to that?

ISAKSON: Well, first of all, she hasn't been nominated by the President. So, whether or not she will be, we don't know.

O'BRIEN: Let's say she is.

ISAKSON: If she is, she will come before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and we'll get the answer to questions. And quite frankly, if we don't get some resolution to the events of Benghazi and the death of Chris Stevens, then I doubt she would be confirmed.

But if we get the truth -- you know, what you don't want to do, Soledad, is shoot the messenger. She read what she was told to read in those five interviews on that Sunday right after Benghazi. She never changed it afterwards, but she never got back on TV to do so.

And the administration kept over and over and over changing the story and diverting attention, but never really quite answered why was did the United States ambassador, why was he murdered? The first murdered ambassador since 1979. Why are we incapable of defending our embassy? And why do we have false information and not have the intelligence we should have had? Those are answers the American people need.

O'BRIEN: Really answering questions, I think. So are you shooting the messenger? I mean, I guess to me, the question I've had in all of this, do you think Ambassador Rice is lying? Do you think that she willfully is doing something intentionally wrong? I'm trying to understand why she has become the focal point of all of this.

ISAKSON: She's become the focal point because she was put on the tip of the spear by the administration. She is a very smart, very intelligent woman. I know Ms. Rice. I think she's done a good job as the ambassador of the U.N.

But in the case of this particular issue, we have an American ambassador dead, four Americans dead. An embassy that couldn't be defended. We've got diplomats all around the world representing our country.

You have to ask the question, can I be protected if the same thing happens to me? And the administration needs to come forward from the top down, beginning with the President, and let's have a time line that makes sense, let's know what really did know, and let's find out what we did wrong and make sure we never do it again.

O'BRIEN: Why is the Secretary of the State not getting the bulk of the blame for this? I mean, you said you thought she was bright. I believe I'm quoting Senator McCain, who said "not bright" and called her incompetent as well.

So I don't understand why everyone is not calling Hillary Clinton on the carpet, which has not happened. She has said the buck stops with her, some version of that. I guess I'd love for you to explain that to me.

ISAKSON: Quite candidly, in the first briefing that we had and I forget the exact date, but it was about third or fourth of September, Secretary Clinton was the first person in the administration to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. So, I think she's been forthcoming in the disclosures that have taken place.

It's the administration, even D.I. Clapper, National Intelligence Director Clapper, only a week or so ago that he finally acknowledged they had done the scrubbing of what had been released in terms of the talking points. So, there are a lot of people that need to be held accountable.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Senator, Roland Martin here. Now I'm confused.

You just said we need to understand about security, why was it in place. But the problem is Secretary Clinton. That was her department. So that's why I'm confused.

Is it a question of who acknowledge e acknowledged a terrorist attack or who was responsible for prudent security, those kind of issues? That's the fundamental issue.

O'BRIEN: Well, maybe a better question to ask of him is this -- if she had gone ahead, sir, and said the CIA -- and revealed al Qaeda, right? She was -- the change in the script essentially, the talking points. Don't say al Qaeda, say extremists.

If she had gone ahead and said, listen, I know some classified information, let's say al Qaeda -- wouldn't that have been even more devastating? Wouldn't that have been a bigger problem? Wouldn't they be after her for that today?

ISAKSON: Well, the truth is always what should be told. And the truth and the knowledge of the truth is what everybody should represent, regardless of the consequences of doing it.

O'BRIEN: So I guess I don't hear the same calls for the head of someone. I don't hear the same frustration with the CIA, which has said that they were the ones who wrote the talking points. I don't hear the same frustration even with the President who said the buck stops with him. I don't hear the same frustration with Hillary Clinton.

Do you -- will you, in fact -- or even General Petraeus, now that this scandal has cost him -- another scandal has cost him his job. It all seems to be falling in the lap of someone who essentially is the ambassador to the United Nations who was the spokesperson going off talking points.

ISAKSON: She was put on the tip of the spear on those first Sunday shows. That's the reason she's upfront. And quite frankly, nobody else in the administration has really come forward.

I give the President credit. He did say, don't blame her. Blame me.

And that's why I'm saying he needs to give us the questions. Why were we not there to protect the ambassador? Why did the ambassador lose his life because we could not defend him? Why did we not have the intelligence to know that that attack was coming?

The Brits have already left Benghazi. We had been hit and attack before. We have evidence there might be an attack.

We were unprepared to protect the United States ambassador. That's the answer the administration needs to give us.

O'BRIEN: Senator Johnny Isakson joining us this morning. He's a Republican from Georgia. Nice to have you with us, sir. We certainly appreciate your time.

ISAKSON: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

Christine Romans has a look at the day's other stories making news. Good morning, again.


Millions of Americans are hoping to turn a $2 gamble into a retirement party tomorrow. Tonight, 42-state, $500 million Powerball jackpot. That's the second largest in lottery history. No one has hit the Powerball jackpot since early October, 16 consecutive rollovers. A lottery official says that should end tonight. Now there's only a 5 percent chance no one will win if sales surge today, as expected.

If you do win, cash value haul is $324 million. But the odds of taking home that jackpot: 175 million to one.

MARTIN: We could be that one, Christine!

ROMANS: Alison Kosik live from Times Square -- Alison.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I'm watching some of the people in line here, which the line is growing. People buying some of the Powerball tickets.

You know what? Who doesn't want to be filthy, right? You've got to be in it to win it, right?

So, all it does is really take one ticket. So, I'm seeing some buy a few here and there. Others are buying more than just a few. They're taking their chances even though they're pretty slim at this point -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Alison Kosik, slim -- essentially one in 175 million. Thanks, Alison.

Just in to CNN, a Saudi diplomat killed in Yemeni capital of Sana'a. That's according to a high-ranking Saudi official. A report by AFP says gunmen opened fire on the diplomat's car, killing him and a bodyguard. Diplomat said to be stationed at the Saudi embassy's military section in Yemen.

New developments in the deadly garment fire in Bangladesh. Three mid- level managers are now under arrest, accused of locking the main gate of the factor after the inferno broke out on Saturday. The fire killed more than 100 workers, injured more than 150 others.

Several thousand people are mourning and protesting near the factory, a factory which makes garment for export to places like the United States.

Thirty-four days before drastic tax hikes and spending cuts are triggered by the fiscal cliff. Speechless. Two parties can't seem to make any progress on entitlement reform.

Earlier on STARTING POINT, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said this is no time to be discussing cuts to programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. But leading Republicans say it's the only way to steer clear of the cliff.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) MINORITY LEADER: The reason why we're having these negotiations is because Washington Democrats have spent money without any care for the cost or the future, and refuse to do anything to protect long-term spending programs like Medicare, a failure that is among the biggest single drivers of our debt.

SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL) MAJORITY WHIP: Whatever changes we want to make should be thoughtful changes, not made in the heat of the fiscal cliff, not done in the closing days here in a lame duck session. Let's look at this thoughtfully and make sure at the end of the day, Medicare is going to survive and be stronger.


ROMANS: So how quickly can Democrats and Republicans find common ground on the fiscal cliff? In five minutes, we'll ask the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman.

All right. With bikini bodies strolling along South Beach, it's no surprise that "Travel & Leisure" magazine has picked Miami as the place with the most attractive people in the country.

MARTIN: I agree.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think we have a consensus.

ROMANS: Behind Miami, San Diego, followed by San Juan, Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: I agree with San Juan.

ROMANS: Charleston, South Carolina, Los Angeles.

MARTIN: Too fake.

BROWNSTEIN: Oh, come on.

MARTIN: Sorry.

ROMANS: And there you go.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT the half -- the kid who plays the half in "Two and a Half Men" now kind of, sort of apologizing over the show that he calls filth. He says he's sorry, kind of. We'll share his apology, straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: So, who's going to blink first? Then, one day, you're going to eventually give up. Thirty-four days before we hit that combination of rising tax rates and spending cuts known -- AKA the fiscal cliff. And right now, both sides are, you know, sort of getting along, and yet, there's not actually any progress to report.

We want to bring in the former Republican governor of the state of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman. She's currently the president of the Whitman's Strategy Group. It's nice to have you with us. Thanks for talking with us.


O'BRIEN: So, you have said that the fiscal cliff, you know, obviously, affects the economy clearly. But how does it affect national security? And how does it affect education, all these other things that you've ticked off as being impacted by the fiscal cliff, but I think we often don't think about.

WHITMAN: Well, that's what the American security project new report is all about is trying to get people to understand that when the United States falls as it has in the last five years from number one to number seven in competitiveness, that hurts us. It hurts us domestically and internationally, and that's part of national security.

If we didn't get the message after Sandy that our infrastructure is part of national security when you saw how the power outage -- we lost power on our farm for almost two weeks. Those things go right to the heart of what keeps this country strong. We need to be competitive and all those feed into national security.

So, it makes it even more important that our representatives here in Washington actually step up and say we have our important things that we believe in very deeply and we're not going to give up on the very basics, but we understand we have a bigger job and that bigger job is to ensure that the United States is on a good, strong fiscal path because that affects everything.

O'BRIEN: So, I'm not feeling super hopeful about that and as Will Cain was pointing out the other day. And I'm not particularly cynical person, but there's sort of these two tracks, right? You have the tax thing and you have the entitlement/spending thing.

And as much as people seem to be talking about working together, ultimately, they seem to, maybe even especially on the entitlements thing, they don't really want to put something on the table. They don't really want to give. How do you envision the solving of this issue?

WHITMAN: Well, you know, we've done it in the past. OK. Let's go back to the very basics. These are political animals. Political animals, they look at polls. Look at the latest polls, and out there in the countryside, across this country, people are saying we understand. We understand there's got to be a combination of revenue enhancers and cuts. We get it.

Are we going to complain individually about our projects? Are we going to go and, you know, undress in Speaker Boehner's office on aids? Sure. But the whole point of being a leader is to step back and say what is going to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people and understanding the importance not just individually to improving the infrastructure, to improving education so we're more competitive with STEM education, that sort of thing.

It's part of a national security issue that's very real for this country I think will help push people to make the decisions they need to make.

O'BRIEN: How does the Grover Norquist pledge play into all of this, right? Because if you look at Tom Cole's who's quoted in Politico was saying, "I don't see it as a violation of my pledge if, in fact, what I do is I allow raise income tax --

WHITMAN: However, they want to modify that definition of having taken the pledge is fine by me.

O'BRIEN: -- raising tax, right? I mean, at the end of the day, if you're the top two percent, you're paying more, and you're going to feel like your taxes were raised. Is that enough of an out, I mean, do you think?

WHITMAN: Whatever they want -- however they want to gloss it over is fine by me. Taking the pledge. I never took it even though I cut taxes and kept the budget spending low and all the rest of those good things and Grover's group would never endorse me because I wouldn't take the pledge. It makes no sense to tie your hands before you know what you may actually be facing and what you're going to have to deal.

And now, what's happening -- and I think it's a good sign as far as the ability to come to some kind of a compromise on the issue of the fiscal cliff is that you have thoughtful leaders finally saying look, we cannot tie our hands this way. And I don't care whether they want to say it's a revenue enhancer or it really isn't -- it's closing a loophole and that's not really raising a tax.

Whatever it takes to be able to give yourself some room to negotiate. You can't negotiate if you've said, you know, I absolutely won't consider this.

O'BRIEN: On both sides.

WHITMAN: On both sides, oh, yes. It's both sides of the aisle.

BROWNSTEIN: Hi. It's Ron Brownstein from the "National Journal." Can I ask you quickly and your hat as former New Jersey governor, how do you feel about the idea of raising a significant amount of this revenue by limiting the ability of people at the top to take itemized tax deductions?

Many argue that it's unfair to coastal states that both have high state and local sales taxes and also high property values are affected by the mortgage deduction. The balance between raising revenue by limiting deductions and raising rates, how should that come out in your mind?

WHITMAN: Well, that's going to be a tough one. But, obviously -- but I think what we ought to do is start with simplifying the tax code and get rid of a lot of these deductions. I mean, you're always going to keep mortgage deduction on your primary home. You certainly don't need it on a secondary residence.

And there are other areas where you can vastly simplify the tax code and looking at developing an infrastructure bank on the part of the federal government to try to provide the resources to help to rebuild. And then, we're going to have to rebuild smarter, too. That's all going to be part of it. And those are part of the recommendations in the American security project proposal we're putting out today.

O'BRIEN: Christine Todd Whitman is the president for Whitman Strategy Group and, of course, the former governor of the state of New Jersey. Nice to have you with us.

WHITMAN: My pleasure.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for your time.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, biting the hand that feeds him millions of dollars, literally, the kid from "Two and a Half Men" now is saying he's sort of sorry for bashing his own show. We will play his apology up next.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Kind of a rewrite from the kid in "Two and a Half Men." Angus T. Jones is his name. He earns about $350,000 per episode. Now, he's saying sorry, kind of, sort of, after he called his own show filth and told viewers that they should not watch it. A statement was released, and he says this.

"I apologize if my remarks reflect me showing indifference and disrespect of my colleagues and a lack of appreciation of the extraordinary opportunity of which I have been blessed. I never intended that."

Former co-star, Charlie Sheen, who was fired from the show, you might remember -- we talked about that for a long time. He weighed in saying it is radically clear to me that the show "Two and a Half Men" is cursed.

BROWNSTEIN: I think it's very different animals here, right? Roland has pointed out since yesterday. It's really hard to be too tough on anybody who is trying to reconcile what they do with their values. Maybe he did it and, you know --

O'BRIEN: And at 19 years old.

BROWNSTEIN: -- and abrupt way, but the basic idea that what you do in your life should reflect your values is hardly an unreasonable --

MARTIN: I watched the entire video. And you can tell here someone who is trying to go deeper within his faith. He's reading the bible. He's reading about different things. When he says that you can't be hot or cold. You've got to be 100 percent all in. If I can't be totally for God, I might as well die.

And so, I understand individuals who are trying to, again, grow spiritually, saw immediately as well, it was no shock. That was a publicist statement that was written. And the bottom line is the kid is trying to grow in his faith.

O'BRIEN: I would just say, calling your own show filth, that -- don't do it again.


O'BRIEN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, well-concealed Ponzi scheme in Afghanistan. We'll tell you (INAUDIBLE) and hundreds of millions of dollars from regular folks' bank accounts and how they are actually tied to Karzai's government.

BROWNSTEIN: There is a shock.

O'BRIEN: And your best bet for hitting the jackpot in tonight's largest ever Powerball? We'll give you a tip coming up. Step one, buy a ticket.


O'BRIEN: And more (ph) straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. Widespread corruption at Kabul Bank in Afghanistan. An audit that's been obtained by "The New York Times" calls it a well-conceived Ponzi scheme. Hundreds of millions of dollar siphoned from regular folks' savings accounts is what I'm trying to say. Political interference, though, is now making it even harder to get to the bottom of this colossal scam.