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Arizona Governor Will Likely Veto Bill; Holder Advises State Attorneys' General; President Obama Orders Plan for Troop Withdrawal; Obama and Boehner Meeting; Portion of Interview with Marco Rubio

Aired February 25, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, the fate of a controversial religious rights bill rests in the hands of Arizona's governor. If she veto's it, gay rights' groups say their rights will be upheld. If she signs it, Arizona could face a very costly economic boycott.

Also right now, Democrats are bringing out the big guns. Former President Bill Clinton, he's out there on the campaign trail in Kentucky trying to help his party pull off an upset in a key Senate race.

And right now, the report -- a report says the NSA and the Pentagon were prepared to launch a sophisticated cyber-attack against Syria, but President Obama rejected the plan. We'll explain why.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start with the clock ticking for the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer. She has until the end of the week to decide whether to sign or veto the state's controversial religious beliefs law which many say is blatantly anti- gay. The law allows businesses to refuse service to anyone if they believe it violates their religious beliefs. But Brewer is expected to veto the bill.

Joining us now on the phone to talk about the upcoming decision is Chuck Coughlin. He's a key political adviser for the governor, Jan Brewer. Chuck, thanks very much for joining us. What's your advice to the governor? We know she has got some time to make this decision.

CHUCK COUGHLIN, POLITICAL ADVISOR, GOV. JAN BREWER, ARIZONA (via telephone): First, Wolf, thanks for having me on. It's a pleasure to be here. You know, the governor has always been very deliberative when faced with very difficult policy decisions. She's had a history of -- she assumed office in 2009 dealing with very difficult issues from one of the worst budget deficits in the country to the immigration discussion in 2009 and 2010 that continued on to today. And so, this is familiar territory with her. She will -- she will take her time.

She has been in the nation's capital with some governors' meetings. She's on her way back to the state today. I presume she will meet with supporters of the bill to hear their cause, meet with people who are -- have expressed their views in opposition, and also meet with legislators who have subsequently changed their mind after the vote. And so, I would expect her to make a decision sometime Thursday or Friday, and -- but she'll be very deliberative in decision. She vetoed a very similar bill, if not nearly identical bill, last year. It's funny how much attention this one has gotten since she took that similar -- took that stance last year. And all of those reasons why she vetoed it last year are relevant today.

BLITZER: So, still presumably she'll go ahead and make that same decision. She's under pressure from both Arizona senators, John McCain, Jeff Lake. They both are suggesting this is not the right thing to do, to sign this legislation into law. They're deeply concerned about the economic impact on the state because, presumably, tourism, which is so important, as you well know, in Arizona, could be impacted if this legislation became the law in Arizona. Is that right?

COUGHLIN: Yes. The -- I mean, again, (INAUDIBLE) first time the state has been in this position. I had the opportunity to be one of the people who is running the first Martin Luther King campaign out here. Eventually, Arizona became the only state in the nation to actually vote on a Martin Luther King holiday and pass it by popular vote. And so, you know, we're used to these -- you know, we're the -- I'm fond to saying we're the 48th state admitted to the union. Sometimes we act like that or we act like the adolescent child which is sometimes pretty good. We get very vigorous debates out here on various issues that express a wide variety of opinions and have a vigorous discussion about them. And throughout her tenure and office, she has been fortunate or unfortunate to be part of many, many of those discussions.

BLITZER: And if she vetoed very similar legislation a year ago, I would guess and, I assume you would as well, she'll veto this legislation, right?

COUGHLIN: Well, I never guess what the governor will do. I -- she -- I'm pleased that she's allowed me to talk to her about this issue. She is always a very open person in terms of talking to folks and hearing them out. And that's all we can ask of folks, that are elected representatives, is that we're heard. I did convey to her my thoughts about that, and that -- you know, my concerns were that we have, you know, 50 statutes on the books in Arizona that protect religious liberty in Arizona. We all know, we have our first amendment rights as well. There's a whole statutory framework for that currently.

My personal concern on this one is it's just written in -- if you look at all of the other statutory makeups, it's much too broad. And it could be construed in very unusual or different ways and cause havoc on the system here in the state. I was fortunate as a young kid to have my father argue a case in front of the Supreme Court which was in 1971, Dewey versus Reynolds Metals which was a first amendment case about a 7th day Adventist who wanted to -- reused to work on a holiday -- on a religious holiday or have anybody else work in his place. That was an interesting case. I was a kid at the time.

But we still debate these types of issues in our country. And she's at the epicenter of that debate right now, and I'm sure she'll take a thoughtful approach to it with her staff and her team. And as I said, I believe she'll make up her mind sometime Thursday, at the latest on Friday.

BLITZER: All right. Chuck Coughlin, who is a political adviser to the governor of Arizona. She's got a tough decision to make. We'll see what she decides to do. Thanks very much, Chuck, for joining us.

COUGHLIN: Thanks, Wolf. Thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: Three Arizona lawmakers who originally voted for the law now say they want the governor to veto it. They say the law was supposed to protect religious rights but that opponents have now made the state look bad.

Joining us now from Philadelphia is our Political Commentator Michael Smerconish. Michael, thanks very much. She is expected to veto the bill. Was this the only decision she could come to, given these serious threats of economic boy costs to the state of Arizona?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, HOST, "THE MICHAEL SMERCONISH PROGRAM", SIRIUSXM: Well, I'm shocked that she hasn't already vetoed it. As a matter of fact, I predicted, Wolf, on radio today that I expect by -- this is just a prediction that by the close of business today, she will veto this. Because the longer that it festers, it's not only a black eye for Arizona and for Governor Brewer, but it's also negative publicity, I think, for the GOP brand at a time when the party can ill afford it. This is a no-brainer. She is certainly going to veto it, in my opinion, so why not get to it sooner than later and remove this issue from the public discourse for the rest of the week?

BLITZER: The legislation that passed in Arizona, but potentially could be vetoed by the governor, it does underline a divide in the GOP, right?

SMERCONISH: It absolutely does within the party, between libertarians who have a Rand Paul live and let live kind of mentality and so-called traditionalists. I think they're on the wrong side of where the public is and where the public is trending.

There's some very interesting cases out there in a variety of states about what I regard as the so-called wedding planners, those who are photographers, and those who are bakers, and those who are florists. And, you know, could they be obligated to provide goods and services for a same-sex wedding where they have some kind of religious objection to it? These are great philosophical issues. But as a practical political matter, I think it's a stone cold loser for the GOP.

BLITZER: And he -- and both senators now want her to go ahead and veto it, John McCain, Jeff Blake. I don't know if either one of them is really a libertarian, but they both see the economic impact on the state of Arizona. Michael, stay with us for a moment because there is another subject I want to discuss with you.

The -- even though Arizona looks like that legislation will be vetoed in that state, it might not have been enforced anyway. That's because the attorney general, Eric Holder, is telling state attorneys general that they don't necessarily have to defend laws they feel discriminate against their citizens and that includes laws banning same-sex marriage. Here's Holder from this morning.


ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I believe we must be suspicious of legal classifications based solely on sexual orientation. And we must endeavor, in all of our efforts, to uphold and advance the values that once led our forbearers to declare, unequivocally, that all are created equal and entitled to equal opportunity.


BLITZER: Let me ask you a question, Michael. Something you tweeted out yourself this morning. You said, doesn't Holder's encouragement of state attorneys' general to not defend laws run the risk of creating 50 new judges? What's the answer?

SMERCONISH: Well, I think it does. And as an attorney, I'm troubled by this. I want to get to the same place where Eric Holder wants to take us on the issue, but I question the way in which he's going about it because I think he's advocating a usurping of the court's function.

You know, if, in fact, those bans need to go, then courts should find them unconstitutional, or a legislature should decide that it wants to revoke the ban that they have implemented. But when you empower 50 different attorney's general across the state, I think you're setting a dangerous precedent and you're putting far too much discretion into the hands of those individuals.

Now, Wolf, when I said that on the radio today, many people, who identified themselves as attorneys, called and they said, Michael, you're wrong. Those attorneys' general already have discretion. They exercise discretion each and every day. But that doesn't turn around my thinking. I'm worried about the precedent that this would set.

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish joining us. Thanks very much, Michael, for that.

A plan for deep and significant cuts to the U.S. military budget, but some fear the cuts could turn the Pentagon into a triangle. Senator Marco Rubio will give us his take behind closed doors. President Obama and the House speaker, John Boehner, they're meeting over at the White House. Gloria Borger standing by, will give us her take on this get-together.


BLITZER: And the breaking news. For the first time, President Obama is ordering the Pentagon to start planning for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Let's go to the Pentagon. Our correspondent Barbara Starr is standing by. Clearly, the president, Barbara, running out of patience with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan leader, and he's making a direct threat to Afghanistan right now.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The stakes don't get any higher at this point, Wolf. The president spoke to his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, earlier today on the phone. And, in short order, both the White House and the Pentagon issued statements so they were ready to go, saying that the president is ordering the U.S. military to begin planning for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. The reason, they say, is that Karzai appears very unwilling at this point to sign that essential security agreement that would provide the legal framework for U.S. troops to stay after the end of this year. If he doesn't sign, U.S. troops can't stay. And the president is running out of patience and has basically said to the Pentagon, OK, start planning for the full withdrawal.

Maybe we'll get this agreement after the April elections in Afghanistan, maybe we won't. But, at this appointment, the president making very clear to the Pentagon and, more importantly, to Hamid Karzai, he's had it, he wants to see a plan for the full withdrawal and be ready to pack up and go. Wolf, this could be quite stunning. It could really be today that we are seeing the end of the 9/11 war.


BLITZER: And there are about 33,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan right now. A lot of them are supposed to stay there until the end of this year. At the end of the year, there are supposed to be zero, although there have been these plans, assuming the Afghans sign this bilateral security agreement, for as few as 3,000 to as many as 10,000 troops to stay there next year. But the longer the Afghanis wait, the less likely there will be any U.S. troops remaining next year in Afghanistan.

STARR: Absolutely right, Wolf. The working plan at the moment would have been, and still they're going to plan for it in case they get an agreement, roughly around 10,000 troops staying. That would be enough to help train and advise Afghan troops to conduct some counterterrorism operations, to go after Taliban and al Qaeda.

But you've really put your finger on it. If they can't do that, then the war might be over, technically, for U.S. troops, but the threat is not. If you don't have U.S. troops in Afghanistan, how do you conduct drone operations, how do you go after al Qaeda and Taliban, both on the Afghan side and perhaps, more importantly, how do you go after them on the Pakistan side of the border, where there is still that safe haven. You lose a lot of military flexibility to go after al Qaeda. This becomes a very problematic situation for the U.S. It's one of the key reasons they want the agreement. But if Karzai isn't going to sign it, Obama says he's ready to pack and go.

BLITZER: Yes, it's one thing for the president of the United States to issue such a warning in a private phone conversation with another leader, in this case the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, it's another thing for the White House then to release a press release announcing this bold threat to the Afghanis in this press release that the White House put out. It underscores the stakes involved and the pressure of the U.S. putting -- the pressure the U.S. is putting on Hamid Karzai right now. No love loss between these two leaders.

All right, Barbara, thanks very much. A major development today over at the White House. Other news we're following. We're getting Republican reaction now to some proposed cuts for the U.S. Army that the Pentagon announced yesterday. I spoke just a little while ago to Senator Marco Rubio. Here's part of our exchange.


BLITZER: What about Chuck Hagel's proposal, the defense secretary, yesterday, to cut back pretty significantly U.S. military troop levels and eliminate some expensive hardware?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Well, I'm not in favor of it. And we have to understand that part of that is the budget deals that have been made around here and the reason those budget deals had to be made is because of a refusal in this place to do anything about the entitlement programs that are bankrupting themselves and our country. That being said, I find it ironic that at a time yesterday where the Chinese attacked Filipino fishermen with water cannons, where there is tensions between Japan and China, where North Korea feels -- there was a North Korean navy intrusion into South Korean waters, with the unrest in the Ukraine that God forbid leads to some sort of Russia military intervention, instability in our own region, and Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear power and Syria falling apart in the Middle East so unstable, at a time of all this, the U.S. is announcing that we may be having troop levels as low as they've been since before World War II. I think that's a pretty startling contrast in terms of where our priorities are and what the world's challenges look like.

BLITZER: But if you eliminate 200,000 troops, which we had in Iraq, 150,000 which we had in Afghanistan, you don't need that big of a standing.

RUBIO: Well, first of all, I think that's all predicated upon how we identify our challenges around the world and what are they. For example, many of the calculations we have made in terms of our force posture is dependent upon the notion that Russia is complying with all sorts of different agreements that they've agreed to. But we've seen on the intermediate rocket -- intermediate missile agreements that they're in violation of those. In fact, Russia basically has violated virtually every significant arms treaty they've ever entered into and do so to this day.

I think it's based upon the idea that Iran is not a nuclear power and we could prevent that from happening. I think it's based - and I don't think it's accurately looking at the expansion of military capability, not just from the Chinese, but also from the Japanese.

BLITZER: So it sounds to me like you're concerned that we could be on the eve of another Cold War.

RUBIO: I'm not -- I'm not sure that it would be like the Cold War exactly. We are certainly in the midst of a geopolitical battle for influence around the world. And I don't view China as an adversary directly, but I do think China has different priorities and different values on some geopolitical matters than we do. And they certainly want to drive us out of the Asia-Pacific region as a dominant power. The same is true in the Middle East. Iran is trying to drive us out of there. The same is true in eastern Europe, where Russia wants to become the dominant power there. The problem is that none of these three countries, in terms of their government and their leaders, have any respect for human rights or the dignity of people or democracy or freedom of the press.


BLITZER: You can catch my entire wide-ranging interview with Senator Rubio later today in "The Situation Room," He talks about the situation in Venezuela and a lot more, including domestic politics. And I ask him directly if he wants to be president of the United States. He gives a very candid answer. He also speaks about Hillary Clinton and what her prospects are. The interview in "The Situation Room" later today, 5:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, a meeting of political rivals. President Obama and the House speaker, John Boehner, they hold private talks over at the White House. Gloria Borger, she's standing by live. We'll discuss.

And later, Ugandans living in fear a day after Uganda passed harsh anti-gay laws. A tabloid newspaper just called out 200 of the country's, quote, "top homosexuals." A rare look at what it's like to be gay in a nation consumed by homophobia.


BLITZER: A meeting of political rivals over at the White House today. President Obama and the House speaker, John Boehner, were scheduled to meet behind closed doors about an hour and a half ago. They've just wrapped up the meeting. The president and the speaker, they're each trying to fire up their political base ahead of the midterm elections. And that means shifting positions on some key issues, like immigration and Social Security reform. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here with her take on this meeting.

And they just issued a little statement. They've got some reaction coming in from the White House.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And from the speaker's point of view, they said they had a constructive conversation that lasted about an hour. And it included the wide range of topics that you would expect, Wolf, immigration reform, manufacturing, trade, Obamacare. The list goes on and on and on. And from the White House point of view, they called it good and constructive. What that means, Wolf, is that these two men had to meet, pro forma discussion. They haven't met a lot one-on-one recently. In fact, we checked and the last time they met one-on-one was about 15 months ago. But they - I think the White House felt that they needed to kind of have an on the record conversation with the speaker about what might be doable and what might not be doable in this - in this --

BLITZER: What is do - what is doable?

BORGER: Not - not much is doable.

BLITZER: In terms of substantive, major legislation.

BORGER: Not - well not much is doable. Don't forget, at the beginning of February it was the House speaker who came out and changed on immigration reform, suddenly saying the president cannot be trusted, the administration can't be trusted on immigration reform. And I think what you see going on here between these two men is that they're both, oddly enough, in similar positions. The president has his base to contend with, and that ties his hands on issues like trade and on reforming entitlements, for example, which I think he might like to do but can't do heading into an election. And the speaker also has a base issue, a problem that won't let him touch immigration reform, and even tax reform, which some Republicans are going to propose tomorrow. But a lot of folks are saying, why get involved in doing something that's substantive when we can win seats in the 2014 election. So both of these men, even though they haven't been great friends, have kind of the same problems.

BLITZER: They've got to worry about their respective bases.


BLITZER: And it was sort of underlined the president and his new budget indicating that he wasn't willing to do what he was willing to do a year ago -

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Except some modifications in the way cost of living adjustments are done for Social Security recipients.

BORGER: And the reason for that, of course, Wolf, is 2014. You know, historically, presidents in the sixth year of their presidencies don't do very well in the midterm elections. The Democrats are very much concerned about losing seats in the House. And there was clearly a contingent of Democrats who said, why are you going to do this heading into the election? We're going to fight back on Obamacare. We're going to tell people that we've given them health care that they need and that will work for them. And why do we want to muddy the water here by angering -- potentially angering senior citizens who, by the way, are part of the Democratic base and vote in some important states.

BLITZER: And usually in higher percentages than younger voters out there.

BORGER: Yes, particularly in off-year elections.



BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Gloria, for the good discussion.


BLITZER: Up next, Ukraine's impact on U.S.-Russia relations. Is a new Cold War looming? We're going to take a closer look.

Later, Bill Clinton campaigning in Kentucky right now. He's trying to help defeat the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell. We'll go live to the campaign trail. We'll hear the former president of the United States.