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CROSSFIRE

GOP Critics Hit Obama

Aired March 6, 2014 - 18:28   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's step into the CROSSFIRE right now with hosts Sally Kohn and Newt Gingrich.

I know you're going to be debating the president's latest moves to get Russia out of Ukraine.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Wolf, we'd all be better off if the president followed the advice of Senator Lindsey Graham, one of our guests tonight.

SALLY KOHN, CO-HOST: The same Lindsey Graham who's been leading the Republican name calling? The debate starts right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, is the president's Ukraine diplomacy paying off or failing?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am confident that we are moving forward together.

ANNOUNCER: Is he being hurt by the chorus of Republican critics?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), : Our president is weak and indecisive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feckless.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Feckless.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Sally Kohn. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. Is the president being undermined by Republicans or by his own decisions? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOHN: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Sally Kohn on the left.

GINGRICH: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, two key U.S. senators in the Ukraine debate.

More breaking news out of Russia today. Vladimir Putin spent his day staging large-scale war games near the Ukrainian border and had the Russian navy sink a ship to block in the Ukrainians. So how did President Obama spend his day? Imposing symbolic sanctions that will prevent a handful of Ukrainian thugs and Russian oligarchs from vacationing at Disney World. If President Obama wanted to actually be effective, he could get dispense with the symbolic liberalism, increase natural gas exports to Europe, and boost defense spending. And that might start to convince Putin that the U.S. is serious.

KOHN: Look, Newt, the president has been taking serious steps all day, but no step seems to be enough to stop his Republican critics.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator Graham, to hear Republican rhetoric -- good evening. You would think President Obama's just been sitting around twiddling his thumbs. But let's look at what he's actually done. He has imposed visa restrictions. He has drafted sanctions. He's canceled bilateral engagements with Russia. He's proposed a billion-dollar aid package. He even sent six F-15s to Lithuania. These you would think are all the things his Republican critics have been asking him to do, so given this, isn't it time to stop criticizing the president?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: In the last 24 hours, he's done a very good job. My problem is the way the president engages not just Putin but the world.

I think the big problem with President Obama, I don't think he has a vision of foreign policy. I think he's uncomfortable with the idea that we're an exceptional country, the voice for freedom and that Putins of the world have to be dealt with. So I appreciate what he did today. Thank God he's upping his game.

But here's the test for President Obama: at the end of the day, with the Crimea in Russia hands in a direct or de facto way...

KOHN: Let me ask you two follow-up questions, sir.

GRAHAM: Sure.

KOHN: No. 1, given that, at least right now, the last 24 hours, big improvement, you're saying you're supporting what the president's been doing. So does that mean you're going to stop criticizing him?

GRAHAM: I'm not going to stop criticizing the president for foreign policy that's a failure from one corner of the world to the other, and nor should I. When he was Senator Obama did anybody ask him, "Would you stop criticizing President Bush?"

KOHN: Senator Cardin, what do you think?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Well, just look at President Obama's foreign policy successes. He's gotten more support for our policies in Iran. We have a coalition that's been put together. In Syria we are standing up to the chemical weapons. And now in Ukraine, President Obama has been the leader in standing up for the rights of the Ukrainian people.

Now, the bad guy here is Putin. It's not President Obama. Putin is the person who invaded another country. Putin is the person who's violating his international agreements. Putin is the person that's putting so much at risk.

GINGRICH: Ben, you know, I agree with that distinction, and -- but I want to ask you on a very specific area where the president could, I think, make a difference. And three weeks ago, in what seemed to be a somewhat safer and more stable world, the president was proposing a budget which cuts the U.S. Army below its Pearl Harbor strength for the first time, really, in a long time.

We've now had a pretty big seismic shift in what's going on in the world. Secretary Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler. If that has any serious meaning, shouldn't -- shouldn't the president turn back to the joint chiefs and say, "I want you to review this and tell me what you need, now that we've determined that we're in a much more dangerous relationship with the Russians"?

CARDIN: Well, obviously, we need to always re-evaluate our military strength. We do spend more money than any other country, by far, on our military expenditures.

We are in tough economic times as far as our budget is concerned. We reached a bipartisan agreement for this year and next that provides a certain cap on how much money we can spend on discretionary spending, whether it's military or nondefense spending. I think a lot of us would like to see those numbers higher. But in order to do that, we've got to reach a real budget agreement that deals with more than just what we did earlier this year.

So I agree with you. I would like to have a long-term budget, but defense spending is certainly not out of line, as far as the fiscal restraints, as what we're doing on nondefense spending.

KOHN: Senator Graham, I gather you're going to disagree, but would you say specifically, vis-a-vis the situation in Ukrainian, would more defense spending have actually changed what's happening right now on the ground?

GRAHAM: We're on track to have the smallest Army since 1940, the smallest Navy, less than 240 ships, since 1915, the smallest Air Force in modern history. We're gutting our military.

And it's not just President Obama's fault. It's the Congress's fault. It's called sequestration.

To my good friend, Ben, who's probably the nicest guy in the Senate, Syria's a debacle. Syria, aside, is stronger after the chemical weapons deal, not -- not weaker. That's not me saying it. That's the director of our national intelligence, Clapper.

My belief about the interim deal with the Iranians, it's a disaster in the making. The prime minister of Israel said the Iranians got the deal of the century, and the world got a terrible deal. They're not dismantling anything, and they're watching us.

So Mr. President, President Obama, now is your time to reset the world, not just your relationship with Russia, but let the world know the United States is not going to sit on the sidelines and watch people take over countries by force, and the Iranians are not going to get a nuclear weapon. And now is the time to convince the Iranians and Putin enough is enough.

CARDIN: I don't think anybody would say the United States is sitting on the sidelines. We are out in front in Syria. We're out in front in Iran.

GRAHAM: What are we doing in Syria?

CARDIN: We're out in front and getting the coalition together to defund the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) without the good guys.

GRAHAM: I mean, literally, what are we doing to change the tide of battle (ph)?

CARDIN: Well, the challenge in Syria is that the Assad regime needs to go. We all understand that. The opposition is not as unified as we would like to see it. There are parts of the opposition that you and I both would like...

GRAHAM: There are 26,000 al Qaeda fighters in Syria. Three years ago there were 500.

CARDIN: There's significant force.

GRAHAM: And 40,000 a year from now.

CARDIN: And that's -- we don't want -- and there's -- there's resources that are going to that part of the opposition. We've got to make sure that our help goes to the right people. At the end of the day we have the right people in charge of Syria.

So I think the president is very correct in the way that he is being cautious as to where our arms end up. We don't want it ending up against U.S. interests in al Qaeda's hands.

GRAHAM: If we're more cautious in Syria, there's not going to be a man or woman alive who opposes Assad.

GINGRICH: The -- I think the question is much bigger than Syria. I watched today both the president and the secretary of state make a commitment and a focus on Crimea that I thought was sort of amazing, because we have less leverage in Crimea than we do in a lot of other places. And it's much like the red line over Syria and the red line over this and red line over that.

"The Washington Post," which is hardly a right-wing publication, in a recent editorial, said that, "For five years, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality." And this strikes me that you're getting a very grim -- I mean, I agree with you entirely that this is Putin. This -- I don't -- this is not Obama's fault. This is Putin. But the fact is this is the same Putin who, since 1999, has been in charge of Russia. He is a former KGB colonel. He is a totally ruthless person. And doesn't that require our president and our foreign policy and our military policy to have a kind of realism that's very tough-minded?

CARDIN: Oh, absolutely. You're absolutely right. Putin is using his KGB tactics. This is a very, very dangerous situation. It's far beyond just Ukraine and Crimea. If you can use force to take over areas, look at what's going on in South China Sea, look what's going on in the western Balkans, this could be used by others to justify the use of force.

So it's a very dangerous serious situation. And I think the president, as Lindsey said, he's saying the right things. He's getting the right coalition together. Let's focus on Putin. It's not even Russia; it's Putin. It's one person who's responsible.

CARDIN: I would suggest that really Russia appears to be strong, but they're not. They're an oil and gas company that's corrupt. He is ripping off his own people. His friends live like kings. So stopping their travel will make a difference. Hitting them in the wallet will make a difference.

But here's the problem. We're at a moment now where we've got probably the last chance before Iran breaks out and get a nuclear capability to reset. Sending those fighters in did more to convince me that we're going to deal with Putin differently than hitting them in the wallet.

Mr. President, keep it up.

KOHN: Keep it up. Hey, at least it's nice to hear you saying something good about the president's leadership, even if it's only for a few moments.

Next, I'll ask Senator Graham whether running down the president with personal insults is undermining our commander in chief abroad.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KOHN: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage of the crisis in Ukraine. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, senators Ben Cardin and Lindsey Graham.

Moments ago we learned President Obama wrapped up a one-hour call with Vladimir Putin. Earlier today President Obama announced a new round of actions to support the people of Ukraine and condemn Russia for its invasion of Crimea.

Republicans, it should be noted, support many of these steps. In fact, Lindsey Graham supported them earlier on our show. And yet, Republicans like our guest, Senator Graham, continue their personal attacks against the president for not showing leadership. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: Our president is weak and indecisive in the eyes of the world right now.

Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine.

I think Putin believes that Obama is really all talk and no action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KOHN: If you disagree with the president substantively, fine. Disagree. Dissent is indeed patriotic. But the latest insults against the president not only smack of petty partisan opportunism; it's these baseless insults that are actually undermining the president's leadership and our nation's role in the world.

Senator Graham, don't you think these sorts of petty personal attacks are beneath your office as a U.S. senator?

GRAHAM: Well, as much as I like me, which is quite a lot, I don't think the world revolves around what I say, but I do believe my criticism of the president has been justified and in our democratic society. They didn't mind criticizing Bush, Bush made his fair share of mistake.

Let me tell you quickly (ph) my real basic problem is. Whether you agree with Snowden as a hero or traitor, I think he's a traitor, when you tell the Russians don't give him asylum, or there will be consequences, they do and nothing happens, it hurts. When you tell Assad, don't cross this red line, please use chemical weapons against your own people, he does, there will be consequences. And the consequences, he's stronger and the opposition is weaker.

When you tell the world we're going to get those who killed the four Americans in Libya and CNN can interview the chief suspect and nobody's been captured, it hurts us. So, Mr. President, now is the time to change that narrative.

KOHN: But, sir, you're also talking about the president who got bin Laden, who expanded the use of drones, the killing of American citizens abroad. You're calling -- you're not attacking his policy positions, you're calling him weak. You're calling him weak.

GRAHAM: I said he was very brave to make the bin Laden call. To send troops into Pakistan was a very tough decision.

Al Qaeda --

KOHN: But, sir, don't you think your own rhetoric is what's undermining --

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: No, I think I'm being accurate when he does something good, and I think his foreign policy is falling apart. There are no consequences when you defy what Obama tells you to do, and there better start being some or the world is going to be a very dangerous place.

GINGRICH: Let me build on that for a second, Ben, from a different angle.

Putin has basically been in charge of Russia since 1999. Medvedev was there primarily as the puppet. And Putin's the same guy. He hasn't changed dramatically.

Yet you go back and you look at Hillary Clinton's reset button. Remember the big red reset button. And you have to say to yourself, what is it they thought was going to get reset? I mean, you -- it seems to me that we have again and again tried to find the good Putin that we're somehow going to be able to deal with.

Yes, I think -- he's a fact. He is the head of Russia, Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal. But isn't there something wrong with our foreign policy establishment when it's perennially trying to prop up and find the best things as opposed to being realistic about who we're dealing with?

CARDIN: Well, we don't determine who the leader of Russia will be and we have no illusions about President Putin. I don't think President Obama does.

Russia plays a very important role. They're one of the permanent council members at the United Nations. So, when we need to get action from the Security Council, we have to work with Russia. We have to work with China.

Part of our major objective in Iran is to get sanctions that are effective. You need to have Russia's cooperation. It's not that we trust Putin. We don't trust Putin.

GINGRICH: But watch Hillary in this video, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, THEN-SECRETARY OF STATE: We want to reset our relationship. And --

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Let's do it together.

CLINTON: So, we will do it together. OK?

(LAUGHTER)

LAVROV: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARDIN: I think we all agree that we'd like to have a different relationship with Russia than we have today. That would be in the U.S. interests to have a better relationship with Russia. We have a lot in common.

I think we have in common. It's against Russia's interests for Iran to have nuclear weapons.

GINGRICH: But don't you think in the current setting if, in fact, Putin doesn't back off and if, in fact, you end up with, for example, Crimea declaring itself Russian --

CARDIN: Right.

GINGRICH: Don't you think if Secretary Clinton's going to try to run in '16, that little video is so far at variance with what happened with reality that it strikes me a pretty big burden for her to explain how come the guy that she now compares to Hitler is the people they were trying to have a reset button with?

CARDIN: Newt, as I said earlier, our complaint is not with the Russian people, it's with one person, it's with Putin.

We need to get along with Russia, we need to establish relations. We have to work together on certain issues but there's no question that Mr. Putin, what he is doing and violating international laws and establishing a very explosive situation that could cause major problems in other parts of the world in addition to Ukraine, we're going to stand up and we will not accept that.

You see it all the actions we're taking. It's much more than visa bans and freezing accounts and diplomatic isolation. There's a lot of options, particularly if we have the support of Europe and we have support of more of our allies around the world.

I think the challenge is going to be whether we can get the rest of the world to stand up with us, if we can isolate Putin's action, we can bring about change.

GINGRICH: Do you really believe, with 39 percent of their natural gas coming from Russia, with every Mercedes plan using natural gas from Russia, that Merkel is going to stand up and take on Putin?

CARDIN: Well, the point that we've been talking about, energy policy, it needs to be part of this. We should talk about energy policy. We shouldn't make countries dependent upon sources of energy, whether it's in the Middle East of countries that don't agree with our policies or it's Russia that doesn't agree with our policy.

Let's have alternative ways to deal with the energy issues.

KOHN: Well, going to sort of realistic next steps here, Senator Graham --

(CROSSTALK)

KOHN: -- amid all the serious debate -- it's very interesting. Maybe if we rethink our energy policy and less carbon monoxide in the air for my colleague to cough on. Senator, you tweeted on Tuesday, you brought up Benghazi earlier and you tweeted, "It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression." Obviously, #ukraine, specifically.

Do you really expect, do you yourself actually really expect the American people to believe that Vladimir Putin was sitting there watching the Olympics, whatever he was doing, he thought, oh, Benghazi, that's why I can invade Ukraine? I mean, seriously, sir.

GRAHAM: Here's what I really know, I don't expect. I know the world, I traveled a good bit. It's a mean world and a good world.

Now, I tell you this, when Americans are killed in Libya and our president says, "I will go to the ends of the earth to bring them to justice", that CNN can interview one of the chief suspects and nothing happens, you better damn believe it sends the wrong signal.

When Americans are killed and the president says, "I will go after him" and nothing happens, sends a terrible signal. When you tell, you better not get Snowden asylum or there'd be consequences, and nothing happens. When you tell Assad, you better not to use chemical weapons and he does -- the cumulative effect of this is destroying our credibility in the world.

(CROSSTALK)

KOHN: -- argue with you over Benghazi --

GRAHAM: And if you don't think if that's our standing in the world, we're looking at totally different worlds.

KOHN: I don't want to turn this into a show on Benghazi, which is the tragedy you keep trying to turn into a scandal. But I do want to say that in 2008, for all the criticism you might have had about how George W. Bush handled and responded to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, in 2008, you did not say that that invasion happened because George W. Bush was weak nor did you characterize him in general as weak or feckless, and no one on your side did.

GRAHAM: I don't think anybody in their right mind could accuse Bush of being weak.

KOHN: Right, but Putin still --

GRAHAM: You could accuse him of maybe being overzealous at times.

But here's the point -- the Bush world was not one where Bush wouldn't confront people. The Bush world was maybe we didn't understand the consequences of getting involved.

The Obama world is telling people, don't do something and they do it and nothing happens. That's a dangerous world.

CARDIN: Let me, if I could -- GINGRICH: If I could -- stay here. We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Do you think Republican criticism of Obama undermines him on the world stage? Tweet yes or no using #crossfire. We'll have the results after the break.

We'll also have the "Outrages of the Day", including a godless attack on one of the most iconic symbols of 9/11.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GINGRICH: Welcome back.

It's time for "Outrages of the Day."

I'm outraged about an attempt to remove one of the most iconic symbols from the 9/11 public display. Amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, two steel beams stuck out forming a cross. It was preserved and will be part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, but not if members of a group called American Atheist have their way. Today, they asked an appeals court to rule against displaying the cross. In the past, they claimed it causes them physical and emotional pain.

If you're that distressed, don't go to the museum. But respect the rights of the rest of us, leave the cross alone.

KOHN: As a New Yorker, too, I agree with Newt.

I'm outraged that the conservative Web site, "The Daily Caller" put out an online surveyor asking, who would make a better president, Putin or Obama? There are not words to describe not only how profoundly insulting and inappropriate this is, vis-a-vis the president of the United States of the America. But even worse, it shows them in their desperation to attack President Obama, conservatives are willing to fond over Putin.

This week, Rudy Giuliani said Putin makes a decision and executes it. He said that's what you call a leader.

Sarah Palin said Putin wrestles bears and drills for oil, while President Obama wears mom jeans.

Are you kidding me? Not just petty, personal insults against President Obama but praising Putin by comparison. That's sick.

GINGRICH: Let's check on our "Fireback" results. Do you think GOP criticism of Obama undermines him on the world stage?

Right now, 59 percent of you say yes, 41 percent say no.

Ben, what do you think?

CARDIN: My request for Senator Graham and the Republicans is that we're in agreement on what the president is doing in regards to Ukraine. Let's show our unity. Let's be behind the president. He'll be stronger and the chances of getting other support around the world will be better. So, let's join together and stand up for what is right and help our president in regards to the Ukraine.

KOHN: What a great note to end on.

Thank you to Senators Ben Cardin and Lindsey Graham.

The debate continues online at CNN.com/crossfire, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Sally Cohn.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.