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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Obama at G-20 In Russia; Uncertainty in Syria; Congressional Support; Interview with Rep. Peter King; Refugee Camps More Dangerous than War Zone

Aired September 5, 2013 - 11:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Obama and Putin, smiles and a handshake to kick off the G-20 summit, but the superpowers and the world are at a crossroads with Syria in the crosshairs.

And if Syria's regime crossed the line with chemical weapons, what about this? "New York Times," front-page news, and a video given to the newspaper of opposition fighters executing Syrian soldiers, the photo and the video smuggled out by sickened rebels.

And if you find it hard to back either side in this brutal civil war, now you know how Congress feels, many Republicans and Democrats finding it more than a little difficult to follow President Obama's lead.

Is this more than just politics this time around?

Hello, everyone, and welcome. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Thursday, September the 5th.

And we want to begin with what could be a make-or-break time for President Obama and his push for a military strike against Syria. Right now he's attending the first session of the G-20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Overshadowing this event is the looming possibility of a U.S. military attack against Syria, of course, for allegedly carrying out that awful chemical attack on its own people, civilians, to be exact.

One big question right off the bat, would the president and the summit host, Russian president Vladimir Putin, even shake hands? And, of course, by now we know the video proves it, not only shaking hands but smiling as they did it.

Not a whole lot else, though, 15 seconds of hello, and on his way. So it's been frosty to say the least. But President Putin is continuing to warn the United States not to take action, military action against Syria.

Mr. Obama will be pressing his case for an attack with the other world leaders who are attending this two-day summit.

Back in Washington, he got quite the boost when the Senate foreign relations committee voted in favor of a limited military strike. A full Senate vote is expected next week. I want to take you to straight now, live to St. Petersburg in Russia, where our Brianna Keilar is traveling with the president with the very latest.

It can't be understated what the optics are of that handshake and this visit. Take me through the early part of the day, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR: Yeah, and both of these leaders, Ashleigh, I think, were very much aware of that. Because if you knew what was going on behind the scenes, the fact that relations here are very icy -- in fact, just yesterday President Obama saying they had hit a wall -- if you didn't know that, you might have thought this was just a really friendly interaction.

But these two leaders are very far apart on a number of issues, Syria, the biggest among them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to come face to face at the annual meeting of G-20 leaders as big decisions loom over military action in Syria.

Obama defending his position to launch strikes.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent.

KEILAR: Putin remains vehemently opposed, casting doubt over the evidence the U.S. government says it has against the Syrian regime.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (via translator): If we have objective, precise data of who is responsible for these crimes then we'll react.

KEILAR: Russia is not alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nays have it.

KEILAR: Britain and Germany are also refusing to endorse military action. This is the highest tensions have been since the two world powers since the cold war.

JAMES F. COLLINS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: We will have a very bad patch if we -- if there is a military attack on Syria. And I think we can expect some pretty frosty time.

KEILAR: Russia and Syria have been strong allies for decades.

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Russia is very close to Syria. They provide and buy weapons from each other. They're kind of a client state.

KEILAR: The conflict over Syria just the tip of the iceberg in the rift between the world leaders. Obama canceled his private meeting with Putin several weeks ago after the Russian leader refused to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

While in St. Petersburg, Obama plans to meet with gay rights activists on Putin's turf as outrage spreads over Russia's new law banning any promotion of gay relationships to minors.

Relations between Putin and Obama, increasingly rocky.

OBAMA: We've kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Now we expect that any minute now the G-20 leaders will be wrapping up their discussion, really their first discussion, the first working session.

It does have to do with economics. This is an economic summit. And then they'll be coming back in an hour or so -- or in an hour or so they'll be doing a working dinner also dealing with the economy.

But, Ashleigh, one observer of this whole process said this is sort of the hold-your-nose summit because it is really Syria that is dominating this summit even though it's not on the official agenda.

So much work is done here on what's called "on the margins," those informal discussions on the sidelines with these world leaders. And they will be talking primarily about Syria, you would expect.

BANFIELD: Sometimes those margin discussions can be very effective.

Brianna Keilar live for us in St. Petersburg, Russia.

I want to bring in Fareed Zakaria, host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

You know, it can be cold and lonely in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the winter. And it can be very cold and lonely if you're the United States president there right now.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": Yeah, you know, in a way the summit is probably a visual representation of a certain level of isolation that the United States feels.

If you look through that list of 20 countries, not a lot of them are right now supporting the United States in its bid to take military action against Syria.

BANFIELD: So with that obviously looming large over this summit, there is just so much to be made about what we're dealing with in terms of the potential mission creep, about the mission itself, about how Bashar al-Assad is moving assets around as we speak. Therefore, whatever the military plans has to be moving in agile with him.

How can we possibly know what we are getting into?

ZAKARIA: Well, at a military level, I wouldn't be surprised if we are actually still pretty well prepared because, yes, we have so many assets, so much capacity. We have the ability to see at night. We have these incredible precision munitions.

But, you know, the problem has never been military for us. It's political. You know, you can send that bomb through that window, and it will be a perfect strike. The problem is what happens politically on the ground in Syria. Whom are you empowering?

You know, when we are doing this stuff, Secretary Kerry, President Obama keep saying we're just going to send a signal. We just want a signal that chemical weapons are abhorrent.

Fine, but you're also taking part in a civil war --

BANFIELD: Yeah, shot across the bow doesn't often work well in a place like the Middle East. It is complex.

ZAKARIA: And anywhere it's political, right? You're actually siding with one group against another group --

BANFIELD: That reminds me. You know what? This is what I was greeted with on my desk when I came in this morning. I don't know if you can see this, but I think we made a graphic out of the front page of "The New York Times."

You need to see this picture because, you know, the people who are standing above those bodies -- well, I'm sorry -- live men who are about to become bodies are the opposition. And that was a summary execution of soldiers, Syrian soldiers who were captured by those opposition rebels.

And this has been the emerging problem. What do we know? What could we possibly know with the kind of intelligence that we have at our disposal about who these emerging groups are?

ZAKARIA: You know, the honest truth is we don't know much, and that's part of the problem.

Secretary Kerry says now, well, you know, about 80 percent are good guys of the opposition. Twenty percent are bad guys.

BANFIELD: Where does this come from? Who's counting?

ZAKARIA: A week ago the chairman of the joint chiefs had said -- I think it was testimony or a letter where he said, you know, we have no idea, and we don't see a lot of moderates.

I know the Turkish government has been trying to stand up a kind of moderate opposition. They haven't been able to.

BANFIELD: Fareed, it's not a numbers game as I understand. It doesn't matter if it's a numbers game in terms of dominance. Some of those less numbered opposition forces are far better organized and far better armed.

ZAKARIA: And they're more ruthless. They're more willing to die for their cause.

BANFIELD: More like that photo.

ZAKARIA: And the realty is what that photo remind me is that this is such a gamble. You know, there are -- by one count, there are 1,000 military that are fighting Assad.

They don't coordinate. They don't have some central office. So the problem here is you're getting yourself into something, and you think you can control it. You can moderate the opposition. You can vet them.

But look at that. You look at that and say to yourself probably going to be more difficult.

BANFIELD: Can't ignore it. You can't ignore it.

Fareed Zakaria, it's great to talk to you and I think you have your work cut out for you in your coming days.

Host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," thank you for your analysis.

So what should the United States do? It's the question. Chris Cuomo is going to be hosting a special Syria town hall event tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, covering everything that you want to ask and you want to know about this impending Syrian conflict and the United States role therein.

And to strike or not to strike Syria is the question that Congress itself is pondering all week. How many lawmakers back the use of force? We're going to have the numbers for you as they are today, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: While the president is overseas, his lieutenants have been busy pleading his case here at Congress, pushing the resolution calling for limited strikes to degrade President Assad's power and control in Syria.

So the question is, is it working?

Our CNN Capitol Hill reporter Lisa Desjardins joins me live now.

You know, we have seen these hearings, and they've been electrifying. I have to say, it's not often that Capitol Hill hearings are electrifying. These have been.

Is the message any different today, Lisa? Is the push any different?

LISA DESJARDINS, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: You know, actually, Ashleigh, it is a little bit different.

For the last three days, we've seen basically a full boil, full press here on Capitol Hill, meetings, briefings, phone calls. Our Deirdre Walsh was reporting last night on two phone calls the White House had with House Democrats. But today I have to tell you it feels like that full boil has moved to a simmer. What's happening now, Ashleigh, is that the White House seems to be reaching out more one on one to individual members.

And that tells you a lot because what's happening is they need votes one by one. They're not getting them in large groups, even though some major leaders including Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Boehner have come out in favor of the president's plan. Many of the members are not following suit yet.

BANFIELD: We have 435 House members, and in total with the Senate, that number is 535.

I am just so curious as to whether they're, A, going to be able to reach all of them and, B, if all of them are reading their research because, you know, there's been a break. And I don't know how much work is done on break.

Is that a concern to the members?

DESJARDINS: Yeah. Many are not in town yet, Ashleigh, and you know, myself and one of our other colleagues, Dan Merica, have been trying to reach all of them one by one. So my finger, you saw it -- you see it's almost bruised from making these phone calls.

Many of them are not deciding yet because they're not here to receive these classified briefings.

Next classified briefing that many members will get is Monday night, and remember, the Senate's meeting Tuesday, so --

BANFIELD: What's the number? Where are we? I know that there's a tracking poll that's going on. Where do they stand?

DESJARDINS: I'm very in the weeds. You're right.

Here's the deal. Here is CNN's vote count. Let's look at these numbers. This is where things are in the U.S. Senate. You see those nos and yeses are getting very close together. Twenty-four yes votes we've counted, 17 no votes.

In the House, we have basically a four-to-one split. Four times as many nos almost right now, Ashleigh, as there are yeses.

Now, I want to stress, Ashleigh, with these numbers that the trend is one thing, and we have seen in the last day a very significant trend, many more no votes. In fact, I got just seven or eight this morning. However, the thing to look at is the vast majority of Congress remains undecided. Many of them are unwilling to even say that they're undecided.

There are some switches, though. Representative Eric Swalwell from California, a freshman rep, he's an interesting one to watch because he's new, comes from a Democratic district. He had a statement over the weekend that said he cannot support the president's plan. That was a tweet he sent out, Ashleigh. Then his spokesman told me Tuesday that he's undecided. It seemed like he was moving, getting warmer toward the president. Who knows.

BANFIELD: And I think there's been so much rhetoric flying around, as well. Lisa Desjardins, thank you for that and keeping track of the numbers for us as well. If we're counting, I think you can count New York Congressman Pete King on the side of the yea votes. And he joins me live now.

Congressman, it's good to see you again. Thanks for joining me in this very critical time.

Super amount of undecideds out there. A lot of people who I think are hedging by saying one thing publicly and ultimately voting another way. I think my big question is whether this will pass or fail is irrelevant today. It's how much politicking is going on, how much opportunism is going on right now? How many people are asking questions to make themselves look good or the president look bad, perhaps the opposite way around? Instead of the hard work of getting to the bottom of a world crisis?

REP. PETER KING, (R) NEW YORK: There's always some of that. What I'm more concerned about is people -- members of Congress who are just going to respond to the volume of emails or phone calls they get. And they're probably running 10-20, 30-1 against going into Syria, or any involvement in Syria or attacking Syria.

That's not reflective -- from my past experience, whether Bosnia or Kosovo, the people who are against are always the one who deluge you with calls and emails. So obviously you have to factor that in. Bottom line is you have to look at the consequences for the country. I would hope that every member of Congress would do that, and -- I have to say also that President Obama is not making it easier when he says things -- yesterday like it's not his red line or he didn't draw the red line. Maybe that shouldn't have anything to do with it, but it shows really a vacillating leadership. It's hard to line people up behind a leader who seems to be backing away from his own position.

BANFIELD: Okay, so let me just play for you one of your colleagues, Marco Rubio, and what he said publicly, and I want to ask but it on the other side. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R) FLORIDA: Had we forcefully engaged in empowering moderate rebels earlier in this conflict, today we would have more and better options before us. But instead, unfortunately the president, wit the support of some voices in my party, chose to let others lead instead. Now we are dealing with the consequences of that inaction.

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R) KENTUCKY: I was home all month. Went to 40 cities. Haven't had one person say, do they all agree it's a horrendous thing -- yes, we all agree that chemical attacks are a horrendous thing. People are not excited about getting involved. They don't think it's going to work.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BANFIELD: There you have it. Two influential senators with their comments. Pretty -- pretty tough words for the president. Ultimate, for all those people who had tough words for the president, do you think they're ultimately going to vote for the presidency?

KING: I think it's going to be a tough call in the House. Right now I would say the vote would go down, it would not pass. There's going to have to be a lot of work done by the administration, by the president, and among Republicans who feel strongly about this to talk to other Republicans, tell them this is not a partisan issue. This is not an easy issue. There's no easy answer here. But to me, the consequences of doing nothing and allowing Syria to use these chemical weapons is going to embolden Syria, embolden Iran, and weaken countries like Jordan and Israel and ultimately weaken our -- threaten our national security.

BANFIELD: You are a member from New York, and I know you get a copy of "The New York Times." I showed Fareed Zakaria the front page of "The New York Times." I know you've seen it, as well. Do you think that images like this, Congressman King, are going to have a chilling effect on how Congressmen choose to vote now that they're really seeing how some of these good guys aren't maybe as good as we thought?

KING: Yes. Again, a lot of members of Congress have not been following this all along. Obviously those pictures are chilling. I'm on the Intelligence Committee also. We've had meetings over the last several months with the vice president, with CIA Director John Brennan, about exactly who makes up the rebels. I still think that there is a solid group of people on the rebel side, the Free Syrian Army, that we can work with. We have to isolate the bad guys, if you will. The al Nusra people out. I think in if we do play an active role in downsizing the Syrian military, degrading the Syrian military and their chemical weapons capacity, that can bring about negotiations.

At those negotiations, we will have much more of a role to play because we would have brought that about. We can help to isolate the al Qaeda supporters. But it's not easy. There's no easy answer here. Even though I'm voting for it, I'm not guaranteeing it will work. But I think what I can guarantee is if we don't do it, it's definitely going to be bad.

BANFIELD: I think that's the problem. Nobody has any guarantees in this very thick and sticky business --

KING: Right.

BANFIELD: -- of the Middle East in Syria in particular. Congressman Pete King, thank you. It's good to see you again. Thanks for your time.

KING: Ashleigh, thank you. Thanks a lot.

BANFIELD: A Georgia teen who was found dead and rolled up in a gym mat at his school may in fact have been murdered after all. We're going to have details of this baffling story after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Welcome back to THE LEGAL VIEW. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. The Justice Department has said it will not take up the case of a Georgia teenager who was found dead in a rolled up gym mat in his school in February. They say there's just not suspicion indication of a civil rights violation in this case. Officials initially said that Kendrick Johnson had suffocated, but an autopsy that was ordered by his family says instead he died from blunt force trauma. There is still an active investigation going on at the state level.

There is now evidence in a second murder investigation from last year involving former New England Patriots' tight end Aaron Hernandez. Investigators say they now have video evidence that puts Hernandez in a Boston nightclub at the same time as two men who were killed later that evening. Hernandez is already being held in the murder of another friend earlier this year.

In Montana, a judge under fire for giving a convicted child rapist just 30 days in jail says his sentencing may have been illegal, and he's scheduled for a hearing tomorrow to possibly amend the sentence. Prosecutors say it's up to the state supreme court to make that decision. And the state's A.G. has even said hold off, we have other plans.

A woman riding her bike hit a semi-truck in Chicago and had an unlikely hero who happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was the city's mayor, Rahm Emanuel. He was at a nearby coffee shop, heard a loud crash, and reportedly ran to help. He even lent the back seat of his SUV to her until the rescue crews arrived. What is it with mayors being superheroes? Seems to be a trend.

For all of you sports fans, here you go -- time to kick off the pro football season. Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos host the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens tonight to start off the NFL season. Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers are the odds-on favorites in Vegas to make it to The Super Bowl. Although I have no idea how they do that so early on in the season, but they do.

Rows and rows of temporary shelters dot a refugee camp in Jordan, and the conditions are so rough that some refugees say they would actually rather return to the war zone than live in what they're living in now. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Welcome back. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. And our top story -- the threat of the U.S. military attack against Syria looming large over the G20 summit that's underway right now in Russia. President Obama and summit host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, managing a smile and handshake this morning, but it was brief, very brief. And then, they still remain deeply divided over Mr. Obama's push to punish the Syrian government for the suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria. Mr. Obama is expected to argue his case for an attack among many of the other leaders attending the summit in St. Petersburg, but here's the problem: most of them remain skeptical at best. The Syrian refugee crisis in the meantime so often the forgotten story in the ramp-up to potential attacks. The number of refugees who have fled the civil war is now topping two million. Take a look at the map. Many of the camps in countries around Syria have not only become painfully overcrowded. They are downright dangerous.