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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Supreme Court Examines Same-Sex Marriage; Criticizing Russia Hazardous to Your Health?; Don't Mess with Putin; Kerry Visits with Karzai; Hollywood Targeting the Oval Office

Aired March 25, 2013 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are we finally going to have a winner in the battle over same-sex marriage? I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The national lead, all the protests, all the appeals, all the uncomfortable arguments at the dinner table have led to this week. The potential power to define marriage is coming for the Supreme Court.

The world lead, is criticizing the Russian government hazardous to your health? The mysterious death of a one-time billionaire who raised cackles in Moscow.

And the pop culture lead, explosions at the White House, the commander in chief held at gunpoint. why is Hollywood suddenly so obsessed with putting the president in peril.

We start, of course, with our national lead. For years, we have watched court cases that were always destined to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, setting precedents that will determine once and for all whether, in the U.S., gay and lesbian couples can legally marry. And now the time is here. The cases have arrived.

Tomorrow, the nine justices will hear arguments over California's Proposition 8, the law that voters passed in 2008 banning same-sex marriage in California. And on Wednesday the court will hear a separate case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton, who now supports the overturning of that law.

At least one of the nine on the court has a personal connection to this issue. Chief Justice John Roberts has a cousin from San Francisco who is a lesbian and reportedly wants to marry her partner. She will be in the room as Roberts' guest during the Prop 8 arguments.

So will CNN senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who will prep us on this. He's the author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and The Supreme Court."

Jeff, thanks for being here on THE LEAD. You're the lead on THE LEAD.

There are a lot of legal issues and torts and weeds, but basically for you this comes down to one question.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: One question, both cases, same question. Can the government, in giving out benefits, whether it's taxes, whether it's marriage, whether it's child custody, can the government say gay people get one set of benefits and straight people get another? Can gay people get less?

Those are really the questions in both cases, and the court has never really answered that question clearly. And we should know a lot more tomorrow.

TAPPER: And in terms of court watching, we know that there are generally four -- traditionally four liberal justices we assume will support same-sex marriage, three or four conservative justices who will probably oppose it.

Does this, like so many other cases before it, come down to Justice Kennedy?

TOOBIN: Anthony Kennedy is the most powerful judge and maybe the most powerful person in America because of that split you talk about.

One reason why supporters of same-sex marriage are optimistic about his vote is that, even though Kennedy usually sides with the conservatives, gay rights has been a subject where he has sided frequently with the liberals. He's the author of the two most important gay rights decisions at the Supreme Court. So there's a lot of optimism among gay rights supporters that they will get his vote on either or both of these cases.

TAPPER: And lastly, Jeff, the presence of Chief Justice Roberts' lesbian cousin -- and we're not telling the viewers anything that she hasn't announced to the world -- is there any significance to her presence there tomorrow?

TOOBIN: You know, John Roberts is going to decide this case on the merits and I don't know how he's going to come out, but I also know about John Roberts' background. I have written about him a lot.

He's from a very conservative town in a conservative part of northern Indiana, Catholic family, very serious, observant Catholics, very Republican family. I had no idea until "The L.A. Times" broke this story that he had an openly lesbian very close cousin.

But that's America today, and it is just a -- I think a very revealing window into how the country has changed.

TAPPER: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, thank you so much.

These two cases are going before the Supreme Court at a time when public support for same-sex marriage continues to grow. Recent polls show that's the case, but maybe the most striking number concerns just how many Americans count gays and lesbians as close members of their circles these days. The higher visibility of gay power in Hollywood has not exactly hurt that cause.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Knock knock, anybody homo? UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I am, I am.

TAPPER (voice-over): It's just a TV show, a situation comedy, not even a drama.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Tonight at dinner, I will tell my mother I'm gay.

TAPPER: But Vice President Biden has credited "Will & Grace" with changing Americans' attitudes about same-sex marriage.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think "Will & Grace" probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far.

TAPPER: On this, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage agree, Hollywood has been incredibly influential encouraging acceptance of gays and lesbians. It was through the medium of television that millions of Americans first had open gays and lesbians in their living rooms.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I can accept the fact that he's gay, but why does he have to slip a ring on this guy's finger?

TAPPER: It was even fodder for "The Golden Girls."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Everyone wants someone to grow old with. Shouldn't everyone have that chance?

TAPPER: In 1994, Pedro on "The Real World: San Francisco" introduced a gay man with HIV/AIDS to millions of then-teenagers. He died that year and was praised by President Clinton.

It helped to create an environment of acceptance, where more and more gays and lesbians came out of the closet. The six "Friends" may have all been straight, but more and more Americans have friends that are not. And that's what's changed dramatically over the past few years.

Consider this. A new CNN poll shows 57 percent of Americans say they have a family member or close friend who's gay. That's a huge jump from just a few years ago and almost double what it was 20 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I pronounce you legally married.

TAPPER: And as those numbers have changed, so has support for same- sex marriage. Our CNN poll shows 53 percent of Americans now say these marriages should be recognized as valid. That's up from 40 percent in 2007. You could call it the Portman effect.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: I'm announcing today a change of heart on an issue that a lot of people feel strongly about. And it has to do with gay couples' opportunity to marry.

TAPPER: Last week, Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman became the first sitting Republican senator to publicly support same-sex marriage, a change of heart he says he had after his son came out of the closet. Years ago, former Vice President Dick Cheney did the same after learning his daughter Mary was a lesbian, putting him for years to the left of President Obama on this issue.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think freedom means freedom for everyone, and, as many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and something that we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish.

TAPPER: Of course, these recent numbers also show that almost half of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This country's doom is coming.

TAPPER: And they will be watching just as closely this week when the Supreme Court tackles the hot-button issue for the very first time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: They're the last people you want making mistakes, but reducing the insane hours for medical interns may do more harm than good, according to new data released just moments ago.

Back in 2011, the maximum shift interns could work was cut from 24 to 16 hours, but one study shows that interns did not sleep any longer and they were actually more worried about making mistakes. And another study shows that patients thought it led to a lower quality of care. Both studies being presented in "The Journal of the American Medical Association."

They're not police or military. They're just ordinary citizens. But when it counted, they came through. A short while ago, four everyday Americans were given an extraordinary honor,the Citizens Service Before Self Honors award. Medal of Honor recipients chose them for going above and beyond in serving their community. This year's recipients include a father-and-son team in Louisiana who used their boat to rescue victims of Hurricane Isaac, a 15-year-old boy who saved a neighbor from a burning home in Oregon, and a Catholic leader who runs a homeless shelter in California.

And a side note. If you were wondering why no one from Newtown, Connecticut, was selected, the organization said nominations from Sandy Hook are being handled separately later this year.

A Russian billionaire is found dead in his London home. So naturally people are asking questions about radioactive poisoning? The mysterious death of a Kremlin critic, that's our world lead. And it's next.

Plus, actor Jim Carrey vs. the NRA -- why conservatives are up in arms over his last parody. We will have that and more ahead in our pop lead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And now it's time for our world lead.

As investigators try to figure out what killed a man the Kremlin dubbed enemy of the state, friends and allies of Boris Berezovsky passionately insist that it's not a matter of what killed him, but who.

The exiled Russian billionaire was found dead at his home in England over the weekend. We learned today that an autopsy is being performed on his body. But no matter what the investigation reveals, there are those who will always believe Berezovsky's contentious relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is what ultimately cost him his life.

And it's not just Berezovsky's death raising eyebrows. Russia's government staged a raid earlier today at Amnesty International's offices in Moscow. The government accused its political foe of spying for foreign governments. But Putin's critics say the raid is just another example of why it's always better to play nice with mother Russia.

CNN's Phil Black joins me now live now from Moscow.

Phil, welcome.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, a 67-year-old man collapsing in his bathroom and dying would not normally become an international news story, nor would the police normally block off his home and test for radioactive contamination.

But that is what has happened in the case of the death of Boris Berezovsky. He was one of Russia's richest men who went on to become one of the most vocal critics of the president, Vladimir Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLACK (voice-over): People who knew Boris Berezovsky in the 1990s described him as frantically energetic, driven and ambitious, not your average mathematician.

He became one of the country's hated oligarchs, that small number of ruthless businessmen who quickly built enormous personal wealth, snapping up state resources cheaply as Russia chaotically embraced capitalism. He also charmed, pestered and lobbied his way into the Kremlin, becoming an influential political player.

And as President Boris Yeltsin's health declined, Berezovsky was said to have played a role in helping to install Vladimir Putin as his successor. This was Berezovsky speaking to CNN in January 200 just days after Putin took over.

BORIS BEREZOVSKY, BILLIONAIRE: I think that Putin will continue the way which President Yeltsin established in Russia.

BLACK: He was wrong. Putin quickly cut all the pushy oligarchs out of Russian politics. Six months later, Berezovsky told CNN Vladimir Putin was creating a dictatorship. That year, Berezovsky was investigated for corporate crimes, which he denied, and he fled Russia, never to return.

Berezovsky's death after 12 years in exile has not softened many Russians' opinion of him. This woman says he betrayed Russia and wrecked many things for the country during its hardest times.

Damian Kudriavtsev used to work for Berezovsky and remained a family friend. He's one of the first to learn of his death.

DAMIAN KUDRIAVTSEV, FRIEND OF BEREZOVSKY: Selfish but positive. He was very difficult but good friend. He tried to be good friend and good man. Sometimes he didn't succeed.

BLACK: Despite those flaws and failures, Kudriavtsev says he is proud to have witnessed Berezovsky's efforts to change Russia.

KUDRIAVTSEV: Business wasn't important for him. He relates somebody to business as resources to make changes.

BLACK: Kudriavtsev says his friend was unhappy and he was in financial trouble, but he wouldn't have harmed himself. And he says Boris Berezovsky had always hoped to someday return to Russia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLACK: There is a reason Boris Berezovsky's death has triggered so much suspicion, and that is because of deaths -- the suspicious deaths of other dissidents abroad because people who opposed Putin here in Russia are often prosecuted. While the Russian government says that it always treats its opponents fairly, critics of the government here say there's an undeniable trend, and that is criticizing the government carries great risk, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Phil Black in Moscow, thank you.

So how concerned should the United States be with what's going on in Russia?

I'm joined now by longtime diplomat and former Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, Democrat of Maine, he's now chairman emeritus of the international law firm DLA Piper.

Senator Mitchell, thanks for joining us.

Mysterious deaths, acid attacks at the Bolshoi ballet, Amnesty International offices raided. Are we seeing a democratic regression in Russia, or have we just started now paying attention?

GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR MIDDLE EAST PEACE: Well, I think that the path to democracy and genuine democratic institutions historically has taken quite a while. And while Russia has achieved the forms of democracy, clearly does not have the full substance of democracy. These incidents and many others you describe really demonstrate that, and I think it will some time. But there's nothing really surprising about that, Jake. In France, it took a half century. In England, more than two centuries. In our own country, it took quite some time after the fighting ended to establish the United States.

So it will be a while. I do think these are obviously troubling incidents. I think after Putin leaves, as ultimately he will, the path may smooth out more than it has been now.

TAPPER: Senator, how would you describe the Obama administration's relationship with Putin? Is he an effective partner in any way? Can he be trusted in any way?

MITCHELL: Well, I don't think any major country bases its national policy on trust of others. It really is ultimately based on self interest and what we think is in the interest of our own country and our own policies.

I think we -- there are some areas where our interests will coincide and we can cooperate, others where they're not. Just obvious, Syria is a major issue now. Russia's longstanding friendship with the Syrian government and its relationship there will make it difficult for it to part ways with Assad, but they recognize, I think already, that they must do so and are embarking on a transition there.

Russia's relationship with Iran is very important. Remember, they once shared a long border when Russia was the Soviet Union, and they've had a fraught relationship on and off at times. So we can enlist their support sometimes and other times that will not be the case.

But we have to be patient and firm. Again, our policies should be based on our self-interest, not trusting or mistrusting any other leader.

TAPPER: All right. Diplomat and former Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, thanks for joining us.

MITCHELL: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Those Russians are seeing red over an 11th hour bailout plan to save the small island of Cyprus. It's not that the country wanted Cyprus to go under. It's that some Russian investors will take the biggest hilt. The plan basically says, "Let's have Cyprus pay its bills by using money from deposits of more than 100,000 euros." That's because no deposits more than 100,000 euros are insured.

But a lot of those deposits come from wealthy Russian oligarchs who used Cyprus banks as a tax haven. Despite all the anger, Russia's government seems set to let the bailout plan go through.

So, what is Karzai's greatest talent as president of Afghanistan? It may be his ability to survive. Now, as American troops prepare to pack up and roll out, the erratic leader is once again stuck in a challenging situation, maintaining his relationship with the United States while still convincing the Afghan people that he really wants us off his lawn.

Nick Paton Walsh is in Kabul where he's traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry on his first official trip to Afghanistan. Kerry made a surprise stop to visit Karzai today.

Nick, how is Kerry trying to help Karzai?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think leaning on that longtime friendship they talked about in the press conference today, perhaps trying to let people in Washington who took the recent comments by Karzai that the U.S. is working with the Taliban to foment violence denied by many there to suggest they can still work with him, he's still potentially an ally.

But we're really talking about a very fraught relationship here that requires this kind of theater in front of cameras when really the U.S. and Afghanistan should be working so closely, these vital agreements in the future, because of the drawdown that's happening now. They should be working in harmony, not trying to prove to everybody they can still get along, Jake.

TAPPER: So, Nick, this is an unstable leader in an unstable country. What is the prognosis for Karzai's continued success in Afghanistan after almost all of the U.S. military leaves at the end of next year?

WALSH: Well, he's potentially going to leave as well. I mean, he would be the first in a longtime Afghan leaders to leave their post voluntarily, to not meet a violent death. 'He could potentially leave in 2014, and he's trying to find a successor at this point.

A lot of the talk today about reconciliation. He's going to the gulf soon where there will soon be an office open where the Taliban can talk to the Afghan government.

John Kerry really pushing this idea of a political process here. I think the United States knows it's leaving, it wants to see perhaps the insurgency come to the table with Karzai in the hope that whatever it leaves behind, except some of the things it wants to see in Afghanistan, but also means there's not a violent future ahead -- Jake.

TAPPER: Nick, one last question. What kind of immunity with the American soldiers have on the ground after the U.S. pulls out most of the rest of the troops, or I think roughly 60,000 troops there. Some will probably stay behind after the withdrawal date at the end of next year. Will they have immunity from prosecution?

WALSH: Absolutely important issue here. After the killings in Panjwai allegedly by a U.S. soldier, great concerns from Afghans. They may have immunity.

Big deal for Afghans here, a bigger deal for U.S. officials. They say we can't have troops unless they're immune from prosecution. That's the center of talks today, and I understand from U.S. officials they haven't got an agreement to immunity at this point. But of course key to the document they're hammering out at the time moment -- Jake. TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh in Afghanistan, thank you.

Coming up, President Obama is surely way too busy to find time to see the latest box office hit. And that's probably a good thing because he might start taking this personally. Hollywood's latest obsession with targeting the presidency. That's our "Pop Lead", and it's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: I'm Jake Tapper and this is THE LEAD.

"The Political Lead": Can Texas go blue? Why Democrats say the state could be in play and why they could have Governor Rick Perry to thank.

"The Money Lead": Mark Zuckerberg goes to Washington with $20 million. Silicon Valley pumping lots of tech cash into D.C. But what do they want?

And, "The Sports Lead". Don't call them Cinderella. Call them Rocky Balboa. Florida Gulf Coast leveling big-time opponents as they become the lowest seed ever in the sweet 16. We'll get to know the new kids on the block, their millionaire coach, and his "Maxim" model wife.

(MUSIC)

TAPPER: But first, "The Pop Culture Lead". The story of Eep, Grug and Ugga scored at movie theaters this week. I'm now referring, of course, to Dreamworks' prehistoric adventure, "The Croods," which came in first at the box office, pulling in nearly $45 million. The movie features the voices of Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds.

And with a very solid second place opening, "Olympus has Fallen", the thriller about a terrorist attack on the White House. The movie hauled in more than $30 million, with scenes of explosions at the White House and a fictional president held at gunpoint. "Olympus" is just one of several movies coming out this year that revives the Hollywood obsession with putting the highest office in the land in jeopardy for our entertainment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go, move!

TAPPER (voice-over): The White House is under attack. The president is in danger. And there's only one man who can save him. That's the plot of not only "Olympus has Fallen" but also of "White House Down," another president in peril movie coming out this summer starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I voted for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're insane.

TAPPER: And that's not all. On Friday, Cobra will seize control of the White House in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."

And in May, "Iron Man 3" will kick off the summer movie season by blowing a hole in the side of Air Force One.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You elected me on a single platform. I will defend this country at all costs.

TAPPER: Hollywood is getting bolder than ever about putting fictional presidents in the crosshairs. And "Deadline Hollywood's" Dominick Patten says audiences are eating it up.

DOMINIC PATTEN, DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD: We're entering the summer blockbuster seasons and blockbusters involve blowing things up.

You're looking at one of the few symbols that anyone in America, Democrat, Republican, or independent, immediately has a visceral reaction to.

TAPPER: This sort of thing reached a heyday in the 1990s when President Harrison Ford threw Kazakhstani terrorists off Air Force One.

HARRISON FORD, ACTOR: Get off my plane.

TAPPER: And, of course, everyone remembers when aliens blew up the White House in "Independence Day."

But in the decade after 9/11, there seemed a definite squeamishness with any imagery of the president or our national landmarks in danger. But that is not the case anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're talking about a hell of a lot more than that, sir.

TAPPER: You can try to find an agenda behind this, either the president is weak because he allowed his safety to be compromised or he's a hero because he gets his John McClane on. But in the end, the motivation may be the one thing that has always driven Hollywood -- the bottom line.

PATTEN: Blockbusters mean big. And if that involves blowing up the White House and taking down Air Force One, those are the numbers Hollywood is going to go for.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Audiences loved "Olympus Has Fallen". It got an A-minus on cinema score, not as much love from critics. It's sitting at 60 percent on "Rotten Tomatoes".