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CNN NEWSROOM

Obama to Appoint Kerry Next Secretary of State; NRA: More Gun Laws Not the Answer; Critics Slam NRA Position; Fiscal Chaos Driving Stocks Down; Schoolchildren Killed in Syria; U.N. Helicopter Crashes in South Sudan

Aired December 21, 2012 - 12:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Suzanne Malveaux. Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM.

President Obama making his choice for the next Secretary of State. He wants longtime Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton. The formal announcement coming in the next hour at about 1:30 or so Eastern. We're going to have that for you live.

We asked Americans how they feel about John Kerry as Secretary of State; we're going to talk about that in a minute. But first, Kerry's coming nomination, hardly a surprise. In fact, people close to him jokingly already calling him Mr. Secretary. Here's a little bit about him from Kate Bolduan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR (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), MASS.: That must change and in the next session of the Congress I hope it will.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): 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), S.C.: It was unjustified to give the scenario as presented by Ambassador Rice.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): -- and criticized for his 1971 testimony opposing the Vietnam War.

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

BOLDUAN (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): Following the loss, Kerry immersed himself in foreign policy.

KERRY: We stand adjourned.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There are very few people in our country with greater experience over a longer period of time in foreign policy than Senator Kerry.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: I want to bring in Jessica Yellin live from the White House.

And, Jessica, I covered Kerry back in 2004, when he was running for president, and he was successfully caricatured, if you will, as someone who was out of touch. Give us a kind of a behind-the-scenes look at really who he is and how he relates to people.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Senator Kerry is a statesman, a man who has been working in Washington for so many years that it is easy to paint a caricature of him that way.

He is a man who has developed a relationship with President Obama, which is what's meaningful today and here at the White House. You know, he is, as Kate pointed out, was dispatched by the president during -- not just two times or a number of times during foreign sort of mini-crises, but very, very delicate situations. And he has successfully eased the way when he went, for example, to Afghanistan to talk to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, to encourage him to allow for a runoff election, which was a touch-and-go situation. He got it done.

So the president has seen him demonstrate his abilities as a diplomat. And of course, in the debate prep with President Obama, he played Mitt Romney during this most recent round of debate preps. It didn't start out so well, as we all know, but it ended well for the president.

And they had a strong connection and the president, in the end, thought that, you know, he came to very much respect John Kerry and will be, they think, a very effective part of the team.

MALVEAUX: How awkward has it been? We know that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., really seen as potentially the top pick for that post; and you have John Kerry, who has wanted it for quite some time.

How did they manage to finesse that?

YELLIN: Well, I would put it this way: my reporting is that there were two people being considered for the post, two people being vetted. They were Susan Rice and Senator Kerry. And the president was, as you know, fiercely defensive of her once she came under attack and didn't want her name or her record to be tarnished in any way.

As soon as that became -- it mushroomed on the Hill and that became too much of an obstacle and an overwhelming challenge. And once she withdrew her name, it was very clear that it was only John Kerry. I mean, Senator Kerry has been a foregone conclusion since she withdrew her name last week. And it was just a matter of time until the president made this announcement, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And just finally, there is a whole -- in Massachusetts, of course, the Senate seat there. It looks like Republicans really wanted to see John Kerry as the potential pick here because they could kind of squeeze in, if you will, slip in one of their own.

YELLIN: Sure, well the -- you know, betting money is that Scott Brown will run for that seat. As you know, he ran and lost and so could he go for that seat? But there are a number of other names that are in circulation. The one that's the most fun to talk about, well, there are many that are fun. But Ben Affleck is always a little bit -- the most fun to look at, should we say.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: There's even talk that Vicki Kennedy, Senator Ted Kennedy's widow, I'm told, might temporarily fill the seat. She's not interested in running for it, but I am told by a Democrat that she would consider temporarily filling it until there is an election for a permanent replacement.

MALVEAUX: All right. A Kennedy or Ben Affleck. All right. That's going to be an interesting run there.

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: (INAUDIBLE) options.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you, Jess.

President Obama nominating Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State, that is happening in the next hour, 1:30 pm Eastern. Kerry would replace Hillary Clinton as she steps down from the post. We're going to have that announcement for you as soon as it starts. That is going to be live at 1:30.

In Newtown, Connecticut, today, around the country, there was a moment of silence. The ringing of the bells.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Church bells rang out in honor of those killed a week ago when a gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children and six adults died at the school. The gunman also killed his mother and himself.

Governors in at least 29 states called for a moment of silence in honor of the victims. Now the White House says President Obama took part privately.

Also in Newtown today, three more victims of the massacre are being laid to rest. Yesterday funerals were held for three 6-year-olds and two teachers. It is a heartbreaking scene that has played out over and over again this week. The mother of the gunman, Adam Lanza, has also been laid to rest. A friend says Nancy Lanza was buried yesterday at an undisclosed location.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: The gun control debate intensifying one week after that horror in Newtown, Connecticut, the killing of those 20 innocent children. Of course, it's putting the issue back in the national agenda.

Just moments ago we heard from the National Rifle Association.

Executive Director Wayne LaPierre called for putting armed police in every school. He also blamed the media, violent video games and a lack of prosecutions of violent criminals. He said more guns -- he said actually more gun laws are not the answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WAYNE LAPIERRE, E.D., NRA: The only way, the only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MALVEAUX: Critics say the NRA uses money, power, scare tactics to hold lawmakers hostage to the agenda opposing gun regulations.

I want to bring in Richard Painter. He's a law professor at the University of Minnesota and was chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.

Joining us from Minneapolis, he wrote an opinion piece here, an op-ed in "The New York Times," comparing the NRA to a protection racket, where people are controlled by organized criminals, corrupt politicians, this kind of thing.

When you hear the head of the NRA today say that gun laws are not the answer, it really is arming people, arming somebody in that school that could have saved lives, what is your response?

RICHARD PAINTER, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA: Well, we -- of course, should focus on mental health issues. We should have fewer violent movies and video games and have better security in our schools, but nothing is going to change the fact that the last thing those children saw, if they looked up -- and I hope they didn't -- is the end of a weapon manufactured by his financial backers.

MALVEAUX: Well, LaPierre says that if somebody, one of those teachers had a weapon, that they could have killed the gunman. Then perhaps they could have saved lives, that that was a potential outcome had there been someone armed in that school.

PAINTER: We could always speculate about potential outcomes, but to have more weapons in the schools, particularly in the hands of people other than trained law enforcement, I think, is a very dangerous thing.

The point I made in the op-ed is that we need to have this debate free of the influence of the NRA money which has been used to intimidate politicians, particularly politicians from my own Republican Party, and intimidate them into refusing to go along with any gun control whatsoever. And I think that's unacceptable.

MALVEAUX: Do you think he has a point when he says federal gun prosecutions have decreased by 40 percent over the last decade or so? That the laws simply are not being enforced?

PAINTER: There is a point there. We need to have more prosecutions for violation of our gun laws but we also need stricter gun laws. We need fewer guns. We do not need semiautomatic weapons on our streets, in the hands of dangerous people.

MALVEAUX: What do you make of the case that he says here that there is -- he almost implies a conspiracy between the media and those who promote Hollywood violent films and even video games.

Do you think there really is a problem with our culture that makes this so deadly and so violent?

PAINTER: We do have a problem with our culture. We have violent video games. We have violent movies. We have a lack of mental health services. We don't have adequate security in our schools, yes, but we also have too many guns and, in particular, semiautomatic weapons in the hands of people who should not have them.

And we need gun control laws. And we don't need NRA money being poured into elections and, in particular, in the Republican primaries, to intimidate politicians, public servants who want to do something to help the American people and those of us who are parents of children who are very worried about our children's future.

MALVEAUX: And you also write in your op-ed, you say the National Rifle Association is ruthless against candidates who attempted to stray from its views that all gun regulations are pure evil.

This is a group that has 4 million members here. Why do you suppose it has that kind of clout?

PAINTER: Not all those members are members who necessarily support the views of the NRA. To use a weapon, even a .22 on a shooting range in many parts of the country, you are required to join the NRA.

The fact of the matter is, though, a lot of the NRA's money comes from the gun manufacturers, who want to sell more weapons to more people.

MALVEAUX: Thank you very much; appreciate your perspective. We're going to delve a little bit more into this later in the hour, as well.

Next hour, the late Robert F. Kennedy's daughter, Kerry Kennedy, is going to weigh in on the debate over gun control. As you remember it was back in 1968 Robert Kennedy died shortly after being shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

We are just days away from a new year and we all might get a tax increase.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: nobody ought to read anything into this. We've got differences, but the country's got big spending problems and we've got to get serious about addressing them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: House Speaker John Boehner there speaking out after his plan to avoid the massive tax increases and spending cuts was rejected and Boehner withdrew his Plan B because lack of support among his own party and it doesn't mean he's walking away from efforts to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

But negotiations are still in limbo. It is driving the stocks down. I want to bring in our Christine Romans, the Money Team. How is this playing out in the stock market?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I mean, look, the market has been assuming this was going to get done and, today, what investors are seeing is no clear pathway forward for a fiscal deal.

They see more talking about talking. They see a Plan B that failed. They don't know what the next plan is going to be and we're measuring days until the fiscal cliff, in hours, actually, so you're seeing a real nervousness on Wall Street.

Look, Muhammad El-Erian who is at Pimco, a big bond fund, we just asked him, what happens if we go over the fiscal cliff. He said, stocks fall, you see disruptions in global markets.

It would not be a good thing for economies, it would not be a good thing for the stock market and investors are now starting to realize that their hopes and assumptions that grown-ups in Washington would prevail and this would get fixed, well, those might have been too rosy, those assumptions.

MALVEAUX: So, Christine, what does it mean for us when you think about all of our taxes going up? How will this impact most of us, most middle-class folks who are looking at the potential of all of this?

ROMANS: Well, I've made a list for you. Quite frankly, it means a lot of different things. It means a difference to your paycheck. It means you're probably going to have to maybe file an extension for your tax refund. It could be refunds delayed, income tax -- I mean, tax season starts in just a few weeks.

It means payroll processors don't exactly know what to do in terms of the withholding tables for your paycheck. Think of it. You're going to get a paycheck in the first week in January. Some will get it in the first week of January. But the first week of January you could get a paycheck and companies right now don't know exactly what to do.

We've seen gift-giving soar. Estate planners are saying that you're seeing people give their money away ahead of launching just for next year. And you're also seeing early stock-dividend payouts, meaning the companies are starting to pay out big dividends early so they can avoid some higher income taxes next year on investments.

You're also seeing companies not spending money on software and equipment like they should be because they just have no idea, no idea whether this Congress is going to send us into a recession.

MALVEAUX: And, Christine, real quickly here. Explain to us really what the sticking point is because it really is all about the rate here in terms of taxes. The last deal that the president put out there is those making more than $400,000, that they would get a tax increase. Boehner's Plan B, millionaires and above, well, that was just scrapped. Where are we? I mean, it seems like there is some sort of marker or margin that we're dealing with.

ROMANS: Right. So, you started with the president saying, I wanted to raise taxes on people who make $250,000 or higher and John Boehner saying, no, no one. And then the president said, $400,000 or higher. John Boehner said a million or higher, but John Boehner -- members of John Boehner's party, members of the Republican Party said, no, we don't want anything that looks like we're raising taxes. We don't want to raise taxes on anyone.

So, the real sticking point here, even as you hear the House Speaker talk about spending, we have a spending problem, we need serious spending plans from the White House, the real problem here is that Republicans can't agree on whether they will raise taxes for anyone and at what level and everyone's taxes will rise on January 31st. I mean, everyone's taxes will rise. That's the irony here.

MALVEAUX: All right, Christine Romans, thank you. We hope they get something done, some sort of deal done before January 1st.

This country at war with itself, in the past two weeks, at least 35 little kids and two teachers have been killed. How the kids of Syria are finding life in the violence that surrounds them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: This just in. The U.N. mission in South Sudan says that a U.N. helicopter has now crashed in South Sudan killing all four of the crew members that were onboard. We are trying to get as much information on this as possible. As soon as we have identifications or more details about that crash, we're going to bring that to you. We are monitoring this throughout the hour.

Coping with the killing of little schoolchildren and their teachers, we're actually not talking about the massacre at Sandy Hook in Connecticut. We are talking about half a world away in Syria.

Thirty-five young students and two teachers have been killed over the past couple of weeks. The school has to stay focused on getting these kids to learn while this war rages around them.

Alex Thompson takes us there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX THOMPSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: "Yes," they yell. "We're ready for lessons." And in they come.

And it's 1,600 people at this Damascus school, two shifts across the day.

Under the ever-watchful eye of President Assad, reading lessons for children, a city, a country at war with itself.

What kind of things are these little girls seeing beyond the school gates?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via translator): We, as educators, don't support one side or the other.

Our concern is for the child to learn, so we keep the school open and help with their fears.

We can't do as much as before, but the key thing is to try and deal with their anxiety. THOMPSON: Up, down, left, right, two, three, four, out in the playground it's a P.E. lesson, exercises including running to the wall, touching it and running back.

Here, the running's for fun, but beyond the school walls, a shell or mortar can land anywhere, any time. Running could be a matter of life and death.

For obvious reasons, the killing of small children and teachers in and around school buildings is pretty near the top of the news agenda at the moment, so it is that, in this educational district and the one next door alone in the past two weeks, 35 small children and two teachers have been killed.

The security building next to the school was car-bombed recently, leaving a staff candid about the problems they face here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via translator): Lots of children had to leave their areas, friends, teachers and move which is very difficult.

Also, we get students pushed out from places, so the school's new to them. We do our best to help, but it's beyond us. It's way too big.

THOMPSON: And then little Zira Assadi (ph) said she wanted to sing us a patriotic song, but the was soon overwhelmed by the general chant, "God, Syria, Bashar al-Assad."

Asked to draw a picture, this little lad has come up with tanks, guns in the colors of the government flag.

This is one of several shelters across Damascus to people displaced by the fighting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (via translator): The reason we're doing this is because we've seen what happens to Syrians who have had to leave the country for refugee catches. They're treated very badly. We don't want that to happen again.

THOMPSON: They may wear with anoraks which are, in fact, the flag of Assad's Syria, but they claim anyone here is welcome, whatever their political affiliation.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: I want to bring in my colleague, Hala Gorani, and, Hala, you can't help but look at those kids' faces, see the faces of these kids in Newtown, Connecticut, who were massacred. This is happening on a daily basis in Syria?

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely. Children are killed on a daily basis in Syria. They're not safe in schools and the big challenge for cities such as Aleppo -- and I'm in touch with people inside of that city very regularly -- is for those children who can't go to school because their districts or their neighborhoods are being regularly bombed and shelled who end up homeless in the parts of this city were there is less violence, it's trying to figure out a way to keep their lives as normal as possible.

They are pouring into schools that are not in their neighborhood, so class sizes are increasing. Many of them don't have their toys, their rooms and, so, you have schools and hospitals and other organizations trying to keep them busy every day with coloring books, with activities, with group activities for these children.

This is a lost generation, Suzanne, essentially. For the last year, year-and-a-half, these are nine-, 10-, 11-year-old children we're seeing on our air right now without regular schooling and with a huge pause in their educational -- in their education and their childhood and what's going to become of them is very unclear going forward.

MALVEAUX: Hala, what do they say in terms of what's the most important thing for those kids in helping them cope?

GORANI: Well, it's getting over the trauma of having an eight- or nine-year-old or 10-year-old or even a younger child drawing, as you saw in Alex Thompson's piece, tanks when asked to draw a picture.

It's having seen death, close up. It's having seen streets with tanks and their homes destroyed. It's getting over the trauma. Even in ordinary times in a country like Syria, it is -- psychological assistance was something that was hard to come by, so imagine the hundreds of thousands of people and their children having to get through this every day.

It's going to be an extremely difficult challenge to them.

MALVEAUX: And I think people can relate when they see that, those young, Syrian children, and they think about what has taken place in Newtown, Connecticut.

Hala, thank you very much for putting it in perspective for us.

Some folks today think that the Mayan calendar points to today as the end of the world. We're going to go live to Mexico.

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