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Discussing President Obama's News Conference; Interview with Congressman Peter King of New York; Obama Addresses Strained Relationship with Russia

Aired August 9, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper while he's away.

The president just wrapped up his press conference, as you saw. He's expected to leave tomorrow for a week-long vacation with his family on Martha's Vineyard. In this news conference, which was 53 minutes' long by my count, he covered everything from the controversy over NSA leaker Edward Snowden -- and he had some fascinating words about Mr. Snowden -- to the investigation of Benghazi and his constant battle with congressional Republicans, especially over health care.

We will delve into all the news and get reaction from a top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee coming up.

Let's begin right now, if we can get her, with our CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jessica joins us from the East Room, where the president just wrapped up.

Jessica, as I said, a range of topics, but his statement and the thrust of what the president seemed to want to talk about were the surveillance programs of course that Edward Snowden shined so much light on.


And not only did he make some news today, but he laid out a framework for more information to come from the administration in the next weeks, I think, with declassifying, indicating that they are going to declassify some programs. Today, what we're learning are the broad framework that sort of allows the NSA to collect their surveillance and the legal thinking behind their justifications for the surveillance, but we're going to get a lot more detail, we're told, about exactly what the government does when they're looking through e- mails and looking through phone records, et cetera.

So I think there is more information to come. That's some big news. But, boy, did they cover the range of topics. I was at the end of the press conference and they got through most of my questions. So, by the end, you could see him, he usually gets a little bit testy at the very end. So can you sometimes get the most fiery answer when he gets a little tired by then.

But he seemed very subdued today, very calm. In the first term, he would get much more prickly in these settings. He just doesn't seem to get as riled up right now. It seems like not all that much will bother him. He did, you saw, get a little on edge over Obamacare, as you point out. But on a range of issues , and that's only touch of emotion I really saw from him.

BERMAN: He had some words about Russian President Vladimir Putin. He talked about Putin's slouch, he looks likes the bored kid at the back of the classroom. That was certainly interesting.

Jessica, as you said, perhaps the most important thing, he issued a four-point plan to really make the surveillance program more transparent to the American people. That seems to be the biggest change, the biggest announcement to come out of this.

Jessica Yellin, sit tight. We will come back to you in just a second.

Also here with us, we have Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, also a CNN political contributor, and Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a CNN contributor as well.

Thanks, guys, so much for being with us.

What struck you, Hilary, from what the president had to say?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Jessica kind of hit it at the end, which is the president today was confident, he was enthusiastic about sharing his latest thinking on the NSA leaks and he was passionate about two things that he cares about, which is making sure that 30 million people actually get health care and that the Republicans don't succeed with these crazy threats about shutting down the government, instead of giving people health care, and that he really wants to see immigration happen.

I thought the president was clear today, and there was a little bit of something for everyone, particularly in that NSA speech.

BERMAN: The president did want to seem to focus on surveillance, Kevin. The president seems to think he already has the support on these NSA programs that they didn't even know about until June. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they're doing.

But it is absolutely true that, with the expansion of technology, this is an area that's moving very quickly, with the revelations that have depleted public trust, that if there are some additional things that we can do to build that trust back up...

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: So in our last polling, 50 percent of Americans approved of the NSA's programs; 44 percent disapproved of them. That was in a recent Pew poll.

So, Kevin, is the president right? Do Americans trust the NSA? Are they apathetic or is there an atmosphere of mistrust?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, look, this is an issue that is quite different in the sense that it doesn't break along the typical partisan or ideological lines that we usually see things break along here in Washington.

That's why I think you have a lot of Republicans and Democrats that are somewhat supportive of the president on this NSA program. And I think that's also a reflection of where their constituents are.

I think the president has a challenge in two things here. The first is he mentioned that part of his reform would be Section 215 of the Patriot Act. I worked at the Department of Justice when they reauthorized the Patriot Act. That is a very misunderstood and typically easily demagogued issue. It's going to be really hard for him. It's going to be a challenge for him as he works through some of the reforms there.

The second part is he said he wants to work with Congress. The question again will be whether or not that is rhetoric or he really wants to put it into practice.


BERMAN: Go ahead, Hilary.

ROSEN: Well, John, I was going to say what we heard I think from the president was exactly what you would want to hear from a president in the 21st century, which is technology has changed, especially since these programs were first put in place.

People ought to know what technology is capable of. He said he's going to create a task force of experts to come in and really evaluate this. I think that both Congress and the administration have a lot of new information that's happening in the marketplace that they're going to benefit from, but really you want a president to say this work is important, we need to find out about terrorist threats, but we're going to make sure that we are doing everything we need to, to stay up to technology and protect civil liberties.

I thought he struck exactly the right tone there.

MADDEN: He talks a lot about task force, and he's really good at always talking about task force.

I think the criticism you heard from Capitol Hill is pretty valid criticism, which is that they're upset that the president has been reluctant up until this point to make a stronger case for the NSA. Let's hope that changes. I think a lot of Republicans will hope that that changes going forward. BERMAN: Hang on one second, because we're actually, by the way, seeing a lot of criticism from Republicans saying he is not doing enough to defend the NSA. We will get to that in a second.

There's something fascinating about people who have asked questions, raised questions about the surveillance. He said -- he praised those who have lawfully raised their voices. He called them patriots. So he was asked if he thought Edward Snowden should be considered a patriot for raising the question that he raised. Listen to what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies. If he in fact believes what he did was right, then like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer, and make his case.


BERMAN: So, he says Edward Snowden is not a patriot.

But, Kevin, I was struck by the fact how far the president went to say I was asking these very same questions before Edward Snowden. It wasn't a very strong condemnation of Mr. Snowden, was it?

MADDEN: Well, I think it's odd that right now -- I think this is one of the problems that the president has had in this debate is that he is directly addressing Edward Snowden. That's an interesting debate to have.

One of the problems here is that because Edward Snowden has been the person talking the most about this program, that has been the result here. It's that it's been largely an issue defined by what Edward Snowden is saying to various reporters. This is an opportunity again for the president to take charge, to take this opportunity to really offer a really robust defense and explanation of this program and why it makes Americans safe.

BERMAN: Hilary, you disagree. You're shaking your head.

ROSEN: Well, because I think the president did that.

I think what he was saying that he does -- he appreciates that Americans who disagree or are asking questions are entitled to that under our Constitution and under the laws of our country, but what Edward Snowden did was not that. That's why he's being charged with a crime. He ran away and in fact ran away to countries that we feel the most threatened by in these security leaks in some respects.

So I think that the president has been clear about that. I think that and he his administration have been clear all along that what they do is lawful surveillance of real terrorist threats. I don't think he has anything to apologize for about how much he has defended this program. What I think is wrong is for kind of Republicans who are looking for a divide here that does not exist to say, you know what? Just -- the president shouldn't really be worried about civil liberties or shouldn't be worried about these other questions.


ROSEN: There's no reason to create a problem here when one doesn't exist. The majority of the people and the majority of our elected officials believe these programs are valuable.

BERMAN: There are people who have said the president himself has not been consistent throughout his political career on these issues.

And the president addressed the gulf between what he said about surveillance programs as a senator and what he's now done as president. Let's listen.


OBAMA: Keep in mind, as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs. And as president, I have taken steps to make sure that they have strong oversight by all three branches of government.


BERMAN: So what do you think? Did he really address that void, that chasm between what he said as a senator, Kevin, and what he's been saying as president?

MADDEN: Look, he was not a healthy skeptic. He was a critic.

But that's OK. This is one of those issues where many Republicans, many folks who are in the national security infrastructure believe that he's moved in the right direction and then they're more than willing important to help support him when he makes a robust defense for the problem.

BERMAN: Let me just read some of the quotes that we got from then Senator Obama in 2007. He said -- quote -- "Your next president will actually believe in the Constitution, which you can't say about your current president."

Hilary, has he evolved or is that a flip-flop?

ROSEN: I think that was one sentence in a political speech that you can't really judge his whole view on.

What he said today was he believes in the program. He supported -- in fact, as senator, despite what Kevin said, he actually voted to maintain the program and to keep it going. What he has said is that there is a role for people to evaluate the civil liberties aspects of this and now he's taking the opportunity as president to put those reforms in.

That doesn't undermine the whole program and it doesn't take anything away from his report for the program.

BERMAN: I think we have Jessica Yellin back at the White House right now.

And, Jessica, if you're there, I would like your insight into the positioning here from the White House because that is fascinating to me what went on today. President Obama seemed on the one hand to defend the NSA program, say no laws have been broken, the surveillance hasn't done anything wrong, no civil liberties have been infringed upon, yet I think I need to do a better job explaining that fact to Americans.

YELLIN: What's been going on, John -- it's a great question -- is that they have been under fire here at the White House for not doing a -- quote -- "good enough job" explaining why they have these surveillance programs.

That's what the defenders of the program say and even some of the companies that are involved in getting the subpoenas. So they have been under a lot of pressure to clarify what is really going on. And at the same time, there are Democrats pressing the president to change the rules and even explain them more fully.

And so what I see is happening is they will come out. They will announce a bunch more -- a little bit more about how these programs work, put it in their framework so Edward Snowden isn't defining it and "The Guardian" newspaper isn't defining it, so that they're defining these programs and how they work.

And then they can say that's been asked and answered and we're not addressing it again, and we stand to defend the American people. And they will try to move on after that.

It's sort of an attempt to put it aside.

BERMAN: All right, Jessica, sit tight for a second. Kevin Madden, Hilary Rosen, we're going to come back in just a moment.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, the president uses the bully pulpit to carry on his fight in Congress. He has tough words for Republicans -- when we come back.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

So, President Obama just spoke for about an hour, 53 minutes by my count, during a news conference that addressed the NSA and Edward Snowden, and the cooling relationship with Russia.

I'm joined now Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. He serves on the House Homeland Security Committee. He chaired the committee until this year.

Congressman King, let me play you one reform the president said he would make about the NSA. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, at my direction, the Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the government's collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.


BERMAN: So, Congressman King, I should tell you, your office has already sent out a statement really condemning the president's comments on the NSA. Elaborate. What was wrong with what the president said?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: This is a terrible failure of leadership. This is the NSA version of the apology talk (ph) -- of the Obama apology talk.

This is a successful program. The NSA program is successful. And yet, the president is allowing Edward Snowden, a traitor, to pull the puppet strings. This man is a traitor to our country. He's been indicted for espionage in time of war, and the president somehow feels he has to cater to him.

The reason why the American people might be confused, or the American people might have concerns, is because for the last two months since this issue has been out there, the president has been AWOL. He's bean MIA, except maybe the first day or two. Since then, he's been silent.

Instead, you have Republicans like Mike Rogers out there. You have Saxby Chambliss. You have myself. You have Lindsey Graham. You have Dianne Feinstein.

No president. Nobody from the administration actively defending his program. And in time of war, to be somehow setting up a task force to tell him what he should be doing -- can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or Winston Churchill doing this? We are at war. And if he wants to make reforms, some changes, every program we have is always susceptible to reform.

But to be silent about it and suddenly jump because Edward Snowden has revealed secrets and has put our country at risk, somehow, it's like a moral equivalency. Snowden has one way of doing it, President Obama has another way of doing it. I wish he showed the same anger toward Edward Snowden as he did toward Republicans on Obamacare.

There was no outrage there when he was asked, "Do you think he's a patriot?" He said, "No, I don't think he is." What do you mean you don't think he is? This man's a traitor. He's indicted by espionage by his administration in time of war.

So, again, I just was -- to me, commander-in-chief should show much more war time leadership than has been show by the president on this issue, on a very, very successful program.


BERMAN: He did say -- he did say that Edward Snowden should come back to the United States and face, you know, his day in court. He is charged with three felonies there.

But, Sir, Congressman, you're essentially suggesting that the president was bullied into this press conference by Edward Snowden.

KING: Yes. It was started by Edward Snowden, and then, the issue got out of control by all this -- a lot of hysterics in the media, by certain politicians, because the president was silent for the last two months. Where was he? Why wasn't he out there continuing his program effectively and loudly?

One thing he is is an excellent speaker. He should have gone on nationwide television and told exactly what this program was, not coming in now saying, well, Snowden has concerns, I have concerns, let's see if we can set up a task force to work it out. No, that's not -- this is warfare going on right now and the president has been a good leader on NSA until the program was disclosed in bits and pieces by Edward Snowden, and now, he seems to be on retreat.

BERMAN: Congressman, he did make clear he doesn't think that the NSA has done anything wrong. He doesn't think anyone's civil liberties have actually been violated.

KING: Right.

BERMAN: He seems to think that the unrest out there was just over the potential that civil liberties could be violated.

And his four steps -- you're criticizing for setting up this four-step plan. There's nothing in there that aggressively calls for massive changes in the program. Yes, he is calling for an outside review. There's no guarantee he'll implement that review says.

KING: When a president is under siege for carry out a program which his defending our nation in a time of war, he should be aggressively, aggressively defending it. I'm not saying he's going to be setting up a task force, not talking about making this reform or that reform, and talking about Snowden, the most part is if he just has to ride the wave of getting out, a different way than the president of reforming it. Like they're both reformers, Snowden went a little too far and that's why he's been charged of crimes. He didn't even say espionage. He didn't say how serious the crime is.

So, I just think this was a failure of leadership. I can't imagine a Franklin Roosevelt, a Harry Truman, a John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower doing this in time of war.

BERMAN: Let me skip to a second on domestic policy here. The president was also asked about health care, Obamacare, and Republican opposition to it, continued Republican opposition. Let me play part of what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: My friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their Holy Grail, their number one priority, the one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care.


BERMAN: So, the president suggested your party's one unifying principle is repealing Obamacare. Is that a fair statement, first of all? And then, let me ask you, do you think that the effort to repeal Obamacare is a waste of time?

KING: No, I believe we should be attempting to repeal Obamacare. But let me make it clear, I don't believe -- because I think one of the questions was about shutting down the government, the debt ceiling, whatever. I do not believe the Republican Party should be using the threat of shutting down the government as a way to shut down Obamacare.

Obamacare was passed, I'm opposed to it. We should try to repeal it. The president won the last election. We shouldn't be doing something by the backdoor that we couldn't get to the front door.

So, I think we should continue our efforts to repeal it, but we should do it in a direct way and not do it by holding a gun on the debt ceiling. So, to that extent, I agree with the president, but on the other hand, I am strongly opposed to Obamacare.

BERMAN: All right. Congressman Peter King from the Homeland Security Committee, former chairman of that committee, thank you so much for being with us. I appreciate it, sir.

KING: Thank you, John.

BERMAN: Up next, more of the president's news conference. The president, of course, elaborated on his working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, some stunning words there.

And later, missing teen Hannah Anderson and her alleged captor James DiMaggio, they've been spotted. We will tell you where and we will tell you about the latest on that search. Stick with us.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, filling in for Jake Tapper.

I am joined again by our panel. CNN's chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin, CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, and CNN political contributor and Republican strategist, Kevin Madden.

So, today, we heard the president speak about a number of issues. One of the most fascinating, one that jumped that podium was when the president spoke about his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Let's listen.


OBAMA: I don't have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they're candid, they're blunt. Often times, they're constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language and he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we're in conversations together, oftentimes, it's very productive.

So, the issue here really has to do with where do they want to take Russia.


BERMAN: So the bored kid at the back of the classroom.

Kevin Madden, can you say that about a Russian president?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: That is not what we would call the most diplomatic language. But, look, I think the president has a real big problem here. He termed the reset with Russia as a number one or very top foreign policy objective for his administration and it's totally unraveled, not only the last few weeks but over the entire first term and the two years that -- the months that we're into this second term.

So, he has a very big problem right now. He has to use this opportunity, again, as a chance to get ahold of that policy and actually try to tell not only people in congress that he's going to need help from but also the American public that he has a clear policy. So far, right now, it's been a muddled mess.

BERMAN: Two kids I wouldn't want to be in class with, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. That'd be very intimidating.

Hilary, the president spoke about his decision to cancel the summit with the Russian president. Here's what he said about that.


OBAMA: Our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden. It had to do on the fact that frankly around a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved. And so, we don't consider that strictly punitive.


BERMAN: So he says it wasn't just about Snowden but isn't it fair to suggest that, you know, Snowden was the last straw, the tipping point here, Hilary?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I hope so. And, you know, we should all be clear. American presidents have never gotten in trouble by criticizing Russian presidents. Like that's just nothing that American people are worried about. So, you know, he can be as tough as he wants with Vladimir Putin and he'll have the support of the American people. It was interesting, though, that President Obama, unlike what Kevin just said, actually started out talking about Putin, talking about the successes that they've had in the first term with the previous Russian President Medvedev.

So, you know, whether it was the START 2 talks, or whether it was, you know, help with sanctions in Iraq, there has been progress in the Obama administration with Russia.

But, you know, look, we just have to draw a line with Putin here and I think the American people support the president and everything he says about his frustration with them.

BERMAN: Republicans, of course, say that that line should have been drawn a lot sooner than this.