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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

President to Hold Press Conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Manhunt on For Killer in Colorado; American Academy of Pediatrics Weighs in on Same-Sex Marriage; Fallon to Replace Leno?

Aired March 21, 2013 - 07:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I'm Christine Romans. Soledad has the day off today. Our STARTING POINT, two rockets land in Israel during President Obama's historic trip there. We're live in the west bank as the president is just moments away now from a live news conference with Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. We will bring that to you live.

BERMAN: A manhunt happening right now for the person who gunned down the head of Colorado's prison systems. Police in a desperate search for a car and a witness who may have some answers.

ROMANS: More saber rattling from North Korea overnight with threats that U.S. bases are, quote, "within striking distance of their country."

BERMAN: And the Heat just on fire. Down by double digits late in the game, they rally to keep the winning streak alive, 24 games and counting. Will it ever stop?

ROMANS: Wow! Good morning. It's Thursday, March 21st. STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning again. Our STARTING POINT, President Obama in the West Bank with face-to-face with world leaders. The press conference is scheduled to start in a few minutes from now.

BERMAN: The urgency of the president's visit underscored by an early morning rocket attack in southern Israel. Two rockets fired from Gaza, landing in the southern Israeli city of Siderot. This happened while the president was in Jerusalem, which is only about 60 miles away. We're getting reports of property damage but no injuries. Right now the president is preparing to return to Jerusalem after this lunch he's having right now with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As we said, we are expecting to hear from the two leaders at any minute.

Our chief national correspondent John King is live from Jerusalem this morning. John, the president is calling this trip to the West Bank a listening tour. What do you think he expects to hear and what does he expect to accomplish?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's trying to find out, John and Christine, just what it would take to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table a day after hearing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his views on trying to restart what is not a stalled, it is a dead Palestinian peace process. There is no peace process at the moment. And it's a risk for the president pushing the parties to the table too fast because if they're not ready to deal, most people you talk to in this region, Palestinians or Israelis, say if taking started again and then collapsed you could have another intifada, other long term ramifications.

What a day this is for the president, only in Ramallah for a few hours. But, as you noted, the rocket attacks fired from Gaza, controlled by Hamas, not by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian authority, is an acknowledgement that Prime Minister Netanyahu claims all the time. Who would he be negotiating with? He could sit down with Mahmoud Abbas, but does Abbas have enough sway over Gaza.

And the question this morning John and Christine is these rockets were fired out of Gaza. I was there the other day. It is tightly controlled by Hamas. Perhaps it was not Hamas itself. Perhaps it was some other jihadist group. But Hamas has such control. Who were they trying to send a message to, the Israelis, President Obama, or perhaps to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, about be careful what you promise the American president?

BERMAN: The president is only spending four hours in the West Bank today, not giving equal time to the Palestinians as he is to the Israelis on this trip. There have been some protests, some demonstrations in the Palestinian areas that the president is not fully committed to a two-state solution. So what kind of message do you think he wants to send to the Palestinians who may be protesting today?

KING: It's a critical point you make. What a turn of events. When President Obama first took office, remember, his first international trip in the first term was to Cairo, giving that big speech about how essentially his message was I'm not George W. Bush. The Iraq war will be ending. I want to make peace and have better relations with the Arab-Muslim world. There was a great deal of hope, including in Ramallah.

I was there the other day. There were protests against president Obama. There are posters all around Ramallah, criticizing this trip. Pictures of the president burned, protests for several days. To the point you made, just this morning he went to the Israeli museum. Tonight he will come back to Jerusalem to give a speech to the Israeli people. So just a few hours in Ramallah with the Palestinian president. There's a lot of questions in the Palestinian leadership. Again it's a fractured Palestinian leadership. Is this president now so desperate to repair relations with Israel that he won't be an honest broker?

ROMANS: We know that expectations at the White House, trying to keep expectations low for the outcome of this trip. We know the president is there in a listening capacity, but how is he working -- is he working to facilitate new peace talks? KING: Yes, but I think is the correct answer there, Christine. If you talk to Israeli officials, Palestinian officials, White House officials, they're all worried if you rush the parties back to the table when they're not ready, not willing, or perhaps not capable, not having the political power to make a deal, then what you get might be worse. If you had a process restart and then collapse it could be worse.

The first priority for the president is to make sure things don't get worse. When you visit Ramallah and Gaza, visit the West Bank and go into the settlements that the Palestinians are so mad about, people on both sides of this debate tell you they sense rising tensions. There have been some rocket attacks, throwing stones at Israeli settlers, causing some injuries. We had rocket attack out of Gaza this morning. People are warning things could escalate again that you could have a new intifada.

Number one priority for the president is to stop things from getting worse and try to get both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to work on talks and turn the temperature do down. Then the president will lead but Secretary of State John Kerry will stay a couple of days here and likely return very soon to try to start lay down the foundation, not for talks next week or next month, but can they get these leaders to say and do the right thing? Perhaps -- and I would put a capital "P" on that "perhaps," get them back to the negotiating table. There are so many difficult issues.

ROMANS: John, we're about two minutes away from this press availability or speech we'll see from the two leaders. The Reuters headline basically said after backslapping in Israel, the president faces discontent on the second day of his trip. That pretty much sums it up.

KING: It does sum it up. It's hard, because he needs to essentially try to help President Abbas. The Israeli government will tell you if they are going to make peace, President Abbas is the one person they trust. He is aging. He has a fractured Palestinian leadership. He has Hamas is essentially sending the message to him we might not support you. Be careful.

Plus, the president of the United States labels Hamas a terrorist group. United states government before and after Obama will likely claim Hamas a terrorist group. So the president is trying to bring one Palestinian leader back to the table while his government labels part of the Palestinian government a terrorist organization. He is an extraordinarily difficult challenge for the president. And add into that this new resentment you sense on the Palestinian street, that the president is so worried about repairing relations. It's eight miles from Ramallah to Jerusalem. This is a tiny packed, dense neighborhood. The Palestinian take at the moment is the president's first international trip of his second term is much more focused on Israel than it is on them.

BERMAN: John King, thanks, in Israel this morning.

Any second now we are waiting President Obama, his remarks with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. We will bring you those remarks the minute that they happen.

In the meantime, we are following new developments this morning following the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. Dueling requests for the United Nations for an independent investigation.

ROMANS: The Syrian government and the opposition are trading accusation that each used chemical weapons during clashes in Aleppo and a Damascus suburb. U.S. officials are trying to get proof that these weapons were used at all. Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us. At this point it's about confirming whether this sort of attack actually happened, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That is correct, Christine and John, U.S. intelligence community conducting its own investigation. We have new details about what they are looking at.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: As more pictures emerge of hospitalized Syrians, CNN has learned U.S. intelligence agencies are in a massive, around-the-clock effort to determine if these people were attacked by chemical weapons. So far, U.S. officials say there is no corroboration.

ROBERT FORD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: So far we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used.

STARR: In a classified briefing to congress, intelligence officials said it's not clear what happened, but CNN has learned new details about how the CIA is trying to figure out exactly what did happen here. U.S. intelligence operatives are now talking to rebels and defectors to see what they know.

At Ft. Dietrich, Maryland, these videos are being analyzed by the Pentagon's classified medical intelligence unit. Officials tell CNN military analysts are looking at the patients' symptoms and conditions, along with reports from Syrian doctors to see if the symptoms of suffocation and convulsions match a potential chemical attack.

Intelligence analysts are also looking at satellite imagery to identify movement of chemical weapons or launches of missiles that could have carried chemical warheads. They're looking at intercepts of cell phone and internet traffic for chatter about attacks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: But, look, intelligence officials tell us with no U.S. military personnel, no U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground, inside Syria, it may be very difficult for them to figure out what really happened here. All the high-tech gizmos in the world don't really beat having a good spy network on the ground. John, Christine?

ROMANS: Thanks, Barbara Starr.

BERMAN: Just to tell you, we are monitoring that box in the corner of your screen right now, expecting a news conference any second with President Obama and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. We will bring that to you as it happens.

ROMANS: Another big story we're watching this morning, an all-out manhunt for a killer in Colorado today. Police say the chief of the state's corrections department Tom Clements was shot in cold blood Tuesday night as he opened the front door to his home outside of Denver. Authorities have not identified a suspect or a motive. But investigators are looking for the driver of a car seen in his neighborhood the night of the murder.

CNN's Jim Spellman is live for us in Denver. Jim, what's the latest in this search?

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They have these leads but still no suspect. And they want to get a description nailed down on the driver of that car. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SPELLMAN: Police scouring for potential leads in the shooting death of the head of Colorado's prison system, Tom Clement, as he answered the front door to his home.

LT. JEFF KRAMER, EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: We're very sensitive to the fact that because of the position he held there could be a number of people who may or may not have a motive to perpetrate a crime like this against him.

SPELLMAN: So far, there are few leads, only a car seen idling nearby at the time of the shooting.

KRAMER: That vehicle is described as a late '90s model boxy style two-door, something similar perhaps to a '90s model Lincoln, although we're not definitively saying it is a Lincoln.

SPELLMAN: The same witness who saw the car idling near the crime scene minutes later saw it driving on this road toward interstate 25, near the on-ramp there are numerous cameras. Police are checking them to see if they can spot the car.

As police pursue the killer, Colorado's governor signed controversial gun control legislation that requires universal background checks and bans high-capacity magazines.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, COLORADO: As far as we know two completely unrelated subjects. And Tom Clements was somebody who worked in what is often times a cold, dark world with a remarkably open and generous heart. He would have expected us to sign these bills and go forward today. It's just the kind of man he was.

SPELLMAN: The governor was less composed earlier in the day when he remembered the man who he had to cajole to take the job.

HICKENLOOPER: Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters, certainly with all the employees of the department of corrections who Tom worked so hard with.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SPELLMAN: Investigators are focusing on that prison connection, they tell us they are not ruling anything out at this point. John and Christine, back to you.

ROMANS: Jim Spellman, thank you, Jim.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, we have some new threats this morning from North Korea. Zoraida Sambolin has that and the rest of the day's top stories this morning.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you. New developments overnight, North Korea issuing new threats to the United States, Pyongyang expressing anger that the U.S. is flying B52s over South Korea, warning that military bases in Guam and japan are, quote, within striking distance of their weapons.

Also official in Seoul say a major hacking attack on the servers of South Korean banks and broadcasters originated from an IP address in China. North Korea is still the prime suspect because they previously used a Chinese IP address on a hacking attack of a South Korean newspaper.

Meantime, two Americans in Somalia have prices on their heads. The United States is putting up the bounty. They are said to be part of a group linked to Al Qaeda. Both are believed to have planned attacks on Americans. The State Department is offering up to $5 million for each man's arrest.

Less than four hours from now, Vice President Joe Biden will be joining Mayor Michael Bloomberg and families affected by the Newtown school massacre in New York City Hall. Biden spoke last night on National Public Radio about limiting the number of rounds in magazines to 10 bullets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: You can't get the deer in three shots, you shouldn't be hunting. You're an embarrassment. Putting 10 rounds, limiting it to 10 rounds makes a difference. Makes a difference in terms of how many shots you can get off before someone can intervene.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Meantime, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tells this morning's "New York Times" he is in favor of changing the state's tough new gun law to allow 10-round magazines instead of seven because seven round magazines are not widely available. Gun owners will still only be allowed to load seven bullets at a time. That law is set to take effect April 16th.

You know, the heat is on. The Miami Heat has now won 24 straight games. LeBron James and company staged an incredible comeback last night, erasing a 27-point third quarter deficit to beat LeBron's old team, the Cleveland cavaliers, 98-95. James had a triple-double, 25 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists. The Heat now within nine games of the NBA record for consecutive wins set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers who won 33 in a row. What are the chances, Berman, that it happens?

BERMAN: You can't keep falling behind by 27 points and expect to win nine games more in a row.

SAMBOLIN: They do that on purpose is my theory. But your theory is that --

BERMAN: I think they've gotten so used to winning any way they want, they sort of --

SAMBOLIN: No big deal?

BERMAN: They play casually the first three quarters and then they turn it on. I suspect it may catch up with them before they get to 33.

SAMBOLIN: I suspect you're right.

ROMANS: All right, ahead on STARTING POINT -- thanks, Zoraida.

We're awaiting a live news conference with President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. We'll bring it to you right when it happens. This as there are no reports this morning that Abbas may be ready to make a key concession. Is a path to a two-state exclusion on the horizon?

BERMAN: And later, Jay Leno -- what's going on with the "Tonight Show" again? The rumors that say it could be pretty soon before he gets replaced.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back in. Any second, we'll be hearing from those podiums, or the people standing behind them actually, in Ramallah in the West Bank right now, President Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, expected to deliver remarks any second right now. They've been meeting for about the last hour or so in Ramallah. The way this event will work is both leaders, President Obama and President Mahmoud Abbas will deliver short remarks and there will be questions. Not a lot of questions really, just one question to each leader from each country's press corps.

ROMANS: The shot you see on the right side of your screen is where we expect to see leaders coming out any moment now for this news conference. The president arrived first in Tel Aviv to a lot of waiting dignitaries and foreign media who are watching this, his first trip to Israel yesterday since becoming president. He is coming there in a listening mode, now meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, in a listening mode. John King just reported to us, look, it's not a stalled peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is a dead peace process, he said.

BERMAN: And John King, yesterday we saw so many smiles, so much hand holding practically between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As we are waiting this news conference with President Obama and president Mahmoud Abbas, what are you looking for in terms of how they relate to each other?

KING: Here's a couple of key questions. Does the President of the United States lay out any timetable for his effort to resume peace talks? I expect the answer to that is no. He will say there's more foundation building.

What does President Abbas say about his willingness to come back to the table? Right now he says he will only come back if Israel meets certain conditions, chief among them, stop ping settlement construction in the West Bank.

I was in two settlements in recent days and there was construction is under way. That construction has accelerated because Prime Minister Netanyahu was mad at the United Nations for recognizing, essentially, a Palestinian state.

And so you see that construction, well that is a poke in the eye of the Palestinians. It's also a poke in the eye, by the way, at the President of the United States, who has urged Prime Minister Netanyahu not to do that. It was very interesting yesterday. The president had a couple of opportunities to publicly raise the settlement issue and he did not. I'm told he did raise it privately but the president made a calculated choice not to pick a public fight with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The question is how much did that disappoint the Palestinians? And you say, look we know Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama had four frosty years. They had one very warm day yesterday. We'll see where it takes us. But the interesting point now is not only the body language here, but the question of whether President Abbas not only has the will to come back to the bargaining table but does he have the political capacity? Because remember he runs Fatah, his political movement, runs the West Bank but Hamas, a terrorist organization in the eyes of Israel and the United States and much of the world, runs Gaza.

And how does the president accept that position? Would he accept Abbas back at the table with Hamas representatives in the delegation? That's a tough one, both for the President of the United States and the person closer in the neighborhood, the Israeli government.

BERMAN: Our thanks to John King in Israel. We just got an update of the timing of this news conference. We expect it now to start ten minutes from now. We'll bring it to you the minute it happens, expecting President Obama and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Meantime just ahead, surprising statement on same-sex marriage from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, checking top stories for you. No plea deal for Fort Hood massacre suspect Major Nidal Hasan. The Army psychiatrist is charged with killing 13 people at the Texas military base in 2009. His lawyers filed motions suggesting Hasan was willing to plead guilty under certain conditions, but his court- martial judge rejected those motions. Jury selection is set now for May 29th.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is coming out in support of same- sex marriage. The Academy announced its support in a ten-page report. The groups says that it studied scientific literature from the past four years and found that children's well-being is affected much more by the strength of family relationships than by the parents' sexual orientation.

NBC says it is building a new studio in New York for Jimmy Fallon, but that is all they're saying. At least for now. Meantime, the "New York Times" is reporting Fallon will replace Leno as the "Tonight Show's" host. The show will return to New York. The "Times" report says only thing not set in stone is NBC's timetable for the changes. Jimmy Fallon addressed the news in his monologue last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY FALLON, COMEDIAN: Before we get started I have to talk about the rumors that came out today which says I'll be moving up to 11:30 or as my parents call it, still too late. Actually, the rumors are true. NBC is turning the "Tonight Show" into a diving competition. So exciting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Fallon was making reference to the new celebrity reality show "Splash," which drew 9 million viewers for its premiere. Let the rumor mill swirl.

BERMAN: It is swirling. The intrigue is certainly there.

ROMANS: Thanks, Zoraida.

We're waiting a press conference with President Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This is due to happen just moments from now. We're going to bring it to you live when they enter the room.

BERMAN: And some video you don't want to miss this morning. A man caught at a basketball game, refusing to share his ice cream with his girlfriend. At least it was his girlfriend. Uh-oh.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)