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Obama Nominating Kerry as Secretary of State; Paying Tribute to Senator Inouye; College Presidents Against Guns; NRA to Address Newtown Massacre

Aired December 21, 2012 - 10:30   ET



CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: My goodness, we have an abundance of breaking news this morning. We have just learned that President Barack Obama will nominate Senator John Kerry to be his Secretary of State.

So let's go to a man who really knows about these things, our own Wolf Blitzer. Good morning, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Yes it's not a huge surprise. We've been expecting it now for the past few weeks, especially since Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name as a possible Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton is going to be leaving in January. She's moving on. She wanted one term and now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry will be nominated by the President.

We're told later today, probably early in the afternoon, the President will have a formal announcement asking John -- asking the Senate confirm John Kerry as the Secretary of State. The hearings will take place in January. They would very much like to have John Kerry in place as the new Secretary of State around the time of the inauguration, January 20, and they would then be able to go forward.

For all practical purposes, John Kerry will certainly continue the foreign policy initiatives that were put forward by Hillary Clinton during these first four years. They're pretty much on the same page on a lot of these issues if not all of them.

But the President of the United States, as you know, Carol, and all of our viewers know he determines U.S. international policy, national security and John Kerry will now have that mission. It opens up the Senate -- the Senate seat in the state of Massachusetts and there's already been widespread speculation that Scott Brown, the incumbent Republican Senator who was defeated by Elizabeth Warren in his bid for re-election, that Scott Brown will be the Republican nominee. That special election I think is scheduled for around June of this year and there have already been a few Democratic potential candidates who are thinking of challenging Scott Brown, assuming Scott Brown runs for that Senate seat, whether Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts, Congressman Ed Markey, the long serving Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts. There has been some other names mentioned as well, but it's going to -- it's going to have a political fallout as well as international fallout, but the bottom line is the President has decided to nominate John Kerry as the next Secretary of State.

COSTELLO: Yes, it is interesting, too, that the Republican Scott Brown came out for gun control legislation, some form of gun control legislation, which we've not heard from many sitting Republicans. So we'll see what happens.

Wolf Blitzer, thank you so much.

BLITZER: It's very interesting. Scott -- Scott Brown's position has evolved since the fallout a week ago of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. He favored an assault weapons ban if done by states. He didn't think the federal government should get involved, but now for first time he's saying in the aftermath of the massacre in that Newtown elementary school he's now saying, "Yes, it's time for the federal government to impose a ban on assault weapons" which is a shift for Scott Brown and sort of an indication of where he suspects the people of Massachusetts are.

He's going to run for that Senate seat that would be vacated by John Kerry, that's probably a smart political move on his part.

COSTELLO: Exactly my thinking. Thank you so much, Wolf. So Senator John Kerry has been -- he's been around forever, but what do you really know about him? His background? What qualifies him to be Secretary of State?

Here is Kate Bolduan.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): His Senate colleagues have joked about his ambition, what many regarded as the worst kept secret in Washington. Even in recent Senate hearings, John Kerry already sounded like he was looking ahead to his future job and the anticipated battles over the State Department budget with Congress.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: That must change and in the next session of the Congress, I hope it will.

BOLDUAN: He wasn't the President's first choice. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running after Republican backlash.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice.

BOLDUAN: Senator Kerry knows himself about being torpedoed by attacks. Accused in his 2004 presidential run of lying about his military record in Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

BOLDUAN: And criticized for his 1971 testimony opposing the Vietnam War.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?

BOLDUAN: Kerry was painted a flip-flopper and out of touch, unable to grasp the struggles of regular Americans. But candidate Kerry did put President Obama, then an unknown politician, on the national stage at the Democratic convention.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John Kerry believes that in a dangerous world war must be an option sometimes but it should never be the first option.

BOLDUAN: Following the loss, Kerry immersed himself in foreign policy.

KERRY: We stand adjourned.

BOLDUAN: Now the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he's been an unofficial envoy for President Obama helping ease tension with President Karzai in Afghanistan and helping mend strained relations with Pakistan after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

KERRY: We are strategic partners with a common enemy in terrorism and extremism.

BOLDUAN: But Kerry is not totally in sync with Obama. He has supported limited military intervention in Syria, something the President has resisted. Over his 30-year career, Kerry has built deep relationships with many foreign leaders.

NICHOLAS BURNS, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: There are very few people in our country with greater experience over a longer period of time in foreign policy than Senator Kerry.

BOLDUAN (on camera): Perhaps Kerry's biggest challenge to date is not his confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill but rather, following in Hillary Clinton's footsteps, who has become one of the most popular officials in the Obama cabinet, both here and abroad.

Kate Bolduan, CNN, Washington.


COSTELLO: And we're lucky enough to have Kate Bolduan in the flesh this morning. Tell us more about Senator Kerry. He must be ecstatic because this is what he wanted for a long time.

BOLDUAN: Yes, this is one of the worst kept secrets in Washington. This has long been an ambition for him. And as you see that profile piece that we just brought to our viewers, it's been kind of a long and winding road getting to this point, especially in recent memory. Susan Rice, as we know, was -- many believed to be the top choice for President Obama to take the seat of -- take the vacated position of Hillary Clinton when she steps down, when she retires, if you will, from being Secretary of State and now John Kerry is obviously going to be the pick.

I was just looking back just to kind of refresh my memory, when Hillary Clinton, when her confirmation came before the Senate, she was confirmed some 94-2. So overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate. From what we hear on Capitol Hill, John Kerry has many supporters on both sides of the aisle who think he would be a very good fit for that position, a very different kind of response from his colleagues than we heard in terms of the hypothetical of if Susan Rice had been nominated for Secretary of State. But now we can see that these confirmation hearings will likely begin very quickly because they want to get him in place.

And then the big question -- on Capitol Hill at least, Carol -- is who will take over for the vacated seat of Senator Kerry? And that will be a very interesting political fight. As we know, Republican Scott Brown he just lost in a re-election battle. We could see him trying to win this -- this Senate seat when the special election does come.

First of all, the Governor of Massachusetts, he will put someone in place to fill the temporary slot before the special election happens, which is possibly mid-June. So that will be a very interesting political story to be watching going forward.

COSTELLO: Oh, yes. Kate Bolduan thanks so much.

Now let's head back to Washington and check in with Jessica Yellin. She broke that story and Dana Bash, she's our Congressional correspondent, she's going to talk a little bit about this, too. But let's head to you first, Jessica.

So John McCain pushed for John Kerry, so the President finally has an idea that everybody seems to like.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This should be an easy confirmation for the President and that will be a relief on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue because the city could use something easy right now, I'll tell you that. And so could the nation.

But Carol, this is also a person the President has come to know and trust over time. Senator John Kerry not someone the President was necessarily close to heading into his administration, but for the reasons Kate pointed out in that piece, he has sent Kerry overseas to meet with world leaders during crisis points, especially after the Afghanistan elections when it was a very tricky situation. He had to convince President Karzai to agree to runoff elections and in a delicate situation Senator Kerry did it.

After the Osama bin Laden raid, Senator Kerry was dispatched to Pakistan to try to smooth relations there. And then, of course, in the debate prep, Senator Kerry played -- played Mitt Romney very effectively according to all sides and that was a bonding experience for the two men and so they've come to know and respect one another. And I'd also point out he's won the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart. He has a history working in the military and foreign affairs and so he has real credibility on these issues and it's something he has personally aspired to for many years in his life.

So this is a real, I'm sure, satisfying moment for him. One thing I can add on the news front, Carol, I am told that John Kerry will be nominated alone today, just to be clear. There will not be other nominees announced with him, just some special attention focused on him. Also, wouldn't want to complicate it with some other trickier nominations the President might have to make.

COSTELLO: Oh it's so refreshing. Jessica Yellin, thanks so much.

OK, let's head to congressional correspondent Dana Bash. And I don't know it's just intriguing that Jessica was saying that, you know, John Kerry, he's a war hero, but you could -- you remember when he ran for President he was swift-boat. There were call kinds of questions coming up about his valor during the Vietnam War. I guess bygones are bygones for everyone?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think for the most part when you're talking about this kind of position Secretary of State, the answer to that is yes. Particularly because, as has been mentioned, he is a member of the very elite club of the United States Senate and he is going to have to be confirmed by this very elite club of which he is a member.

So that is definitely a big plus, particularly since we are hearing from -- in fact literally just as I was coming up to get on with you, I bumped into a Republican Senator who is on Kerry's committee and I said, "I assume you're a yes," and he just looked at me like duh, of course we're yeses. So -- so that -- so that definite is a plus.

Yet again, I just want to bring to you a little color about what's been going on behind the scenes here in the Senate where John Kerry currently worked.

First of all, it had been just frankly awkward when Susan Rice was thought to be the front-runner and then she had problems and so the questions were being asked of John Kerry and his colleagues about whether Susan Rice was right for the job, particularly when reporters like me had to ask John Kerry about Susan Rice. He kind of looked at us like, really, are you asking me that? Because it was weird, because it was clear he wanted the job.

Then over the past week, after Susan Rice took her name out, every day we would see Kerry in the subway that runs underneath here or the elevator saying, hi, Mr. Secretary, congratulations. He would say not yet, not yet. So he's kind of been in an odd waiting game, waiting for the -- for the official news and even this morning my understanding is that his Senate office didn't know officially that this was going to come today.

So there definitely has been -- there's a feeling that this is a long time coming for Senator Kerry and that's why for a number of reasons it's pretty clear that he's going to be confirmed.

COSTELLO: Yes well he can be loud and proud now. Dana Bash reporting live for us from Capitol Hill. Thanks so much.

Also happening now in Washington, lawmakers are saying goodbye to Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye. Friends and colleagues have gathered at Washington's National Cathedral for a special memorial service. The Senate Chaplain will deliver a sermon and you see President Obama wiping tears from his eyes. He'll give remarks.

Inouye was the second longest serving senator in history. He served Hawaii since it became a state in 1959. As you know that's where President Obama grew up, so he's well familiar with Daniel Inouye.

Inouye, by the way, awarded the Medal of Honor after losing an arm in battle during World War II. It was during recovery at a hospital that he met Bob Dole. Dole stood in front of Inouye's coffin yesterday because he said quote, "I wouldn't want to see Danny to see me in a wheelchair." Senator Inouye was 88 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am resurrection and I am life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life even though he died and everyone who has life and has committed himself to me in faith shall not die forever.


COSTELLO: All right. We are awaiting the first news conference since the Newtown tragedy from the National Rifle Association. Of course, a powerful lobbying group for gun rights.

Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president, expected to speak in just about ten minutes. Originally that press conference was going to take place right about now, but the NRA has postponed it for just about 15 minutes because of everything going on. We'll get to it live as soon as it happens.

There are more and more lawmakers who want to consider arming teachers in the classroom. In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states allow firearms on campus. Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.

But there are 300 colleges and universities that want guns banned. And in an open letter they are asking lawmakers and the President to oppose legislation that would allow guns on campus. They want the gun show loophole closed and the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons reinstated. And safety standards like locks for all guns.

Two college presidents behind this letter are Lawrence Schall of Oglethorpe and Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College. Both here in the state of Georgia, they join us live. Thank you so much for coming in. We really appreciate it.

So what prompted the letter, President Schall?

LAWRENCE SCHALL, PRESIDENT, OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY: Sunday night I think along with the rest of America was watching the service in Newtown. And afterwards I lay in bed and tried to get to sleep and I just couldn't fall asleep and was haunted by President Obama's challenge I think to us, to all of America that we could do better.

So I got up and I started to write, and took about an hour and I put something together and the next morning I sent it to some friends who were also presidents, Elizabeth being one of them, and we got a pretty positive response. And so we thought we'd send it out to others.

You know, I grew up thinking that people need to take personal responsibility for these kinds of challenges, so when the President challenged all of us, I thought what might I do.

COSTELLO: Some people might ask since, you know, gun violence has been a problem on college campuses, Virginia Tech being one example, why university presidents haven't spoken out with such force and in such great numbers until now.

ELIZABETH KISS, PRESIDENT, AGNES SCOTT COLLEGE: I think maybe there's something particularly powerful and emotionally wrenching about this tragedy. And so for me personally, I mean I was not a president at that time of the Virginia Tech tragedy. But as I thought about this -- I thought well, as an educator responsible for young people's safety, I have to speak up on this issue. And I think others feel the same way.

COSTELLO: Universities like some in Colorado they allow students to carry guns on campus. Seems to be no problem surrounding that. Maybe students feel safer that way. We don't know exactly how many students opt to do that. But what's wrong with that?

SCHALL: It's interesting. My first draft of my letter did not have this piece in it. When we began to send it out to other presidents, almost everyone said, you know, we need to include this, and had lots of comments from different presidents about different sections of the letter, but on this one I think over 300 presidents are uniformly behind this idea that our campuses, we don't need this on our campuses. We have our own security forces on campuses. We rely on the authorities that are around us to protect us.

COSTELLO: And yet you have a particular problem because, you know, for example, the theater shootings in Colorado, that young man went to a university. The university knew that young man had problems. It threw the kid off campus, but there are people on college campuses, who are dangerous right now. So how -- and I hear what you said, but how do you really keep kids safe from people who are not right?

KISS: Well, there are no perfect solutions here certainly, and I do think and the letter addresses this, that there needs to be action on mental health issues as well and we as college presidents have to be part of that effort. But, you know, ultimately we will be safer, I believe, and I think our signatories believe, if for example, these kind of assault-style weapons are taken out of private citizens' hands.

COSTELLO: Thank you both for joining us this morning. We sure appreciate it.

SCHALL: Thank you Carol. Happy holidays.

COSTELLO: Happy holidays to you, too.

OK. So the NRA, we are still awaiting that press conference to begin. It should begin in just about 10 minutes when Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the NRA, takes his place behind the podium. We'll take you back to Washington live.


COSTELLO: At the top of the hour we will hear from the National Rifle Association, the gun rights group holding its first news conference since the Sandy Hook shooting rocked the town of Newtown, Connecticut, and the nation. CNN will have complete coverage. Wolf Blitzer is in our Washington bureau with some analysis, Jessica Yellin is at the White House and Dana Bash is on Capitol Hill.

Let's start with you, Wolf. The NRA says it's going to talk about meaningful contributions to the gun debate in this country. What do you suppose the NRA means by that?

BLITZER: I would be anxious to see if they're open to discussing with Congress, with the President -- the specific steps the president put forward the other day when he asked Joe Biden, the Vice President, to begin a little review over the next month to come up with some legislative ideas to deal with stricter gun control. High capacity ammunition clips, for example, what to do about that. The assault weapons ban, how to revive that, background checks because there are so many loopholes, especially at gun shows. Anybody could go out and buy these kinds of weapons.

So I'm interested to see if Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association. If he's open to discussing those three specific areas that the President laid out.

COSTELLO: And Jessica Yellin, I want to ask you about the President's efforts. He's been criticized so much over this issue because the best time for him to perhaps get legislation through Congress pertaining to gun control was his first two years in office when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.

YELLIN: That's true. And, you know, you heard the President argue that he was inundated with economic crises at the time and that, you know, was a priority. But there's no question that they are feeling the regret of that now and an urgency to take some action. The question is how long does that urgency last, not just here but around the nation. We know how short attention spans can be and how organized some of the efforts to fight these actions can be. We have seen it in the past.

But Vice President Biden is leading this effort, and he has also tried to champion the first assault weapons ban back in 1989 through 1994. It took him that long to get it done, and he did get it done. So they say they will be able to make some headway again. We'll see if the NRA works with them -- Carol.

COSTELLO: We'll see, OK. And Dana Bash, a question for you, Senator Dianne Feinstein says she's going to introduce gun control legislation but not until after the first of the year. Why wait?

BASH: Because that's really when the new Congress is starting. The business here is pretty much over except for that tiny issue of the fiscal cliff. So that's the main reason why. But I think what I'm going to be looking for is what the NRA says as it pertains to whether or not what Dianne Feinstein is going to propose can actually pass and can get the support of many of her fellow Democrats.

That's something that we're definitely going to be watching. About a half a dozen Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who are from relatively red states, gun rights states. So if the NRA gives them cover or gives them a pass for supporting any kind of gun control legislation that will be a huge win for Dianne Feinstein and people like her who want to try to pass something. Very, very important.

Look, the question has been is the NRA still powerful? The answer is yes. Not only with money but because of their many, many members who make phone calls here..

COSTELLO: That's right, they have 4 million members.

Dana Bash, Wolf Blitzer, Jessica Yellin, thanks so much for adding analysis. We appreciate it.

Again, the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president, expected to speak at the top of the hour.

My colleague Don Lemon will handle that. We're going to take a break and we'll be right back.