Return to Transcripts main page


Rick Perry Revs Up CPAC Crowd; William Cohen Talks Ukraine Situation; "Death Row Stories" Picks Apart Different Death Row Cases

Aired March 7, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Texas Governor Rick Perry revving up the conservative base with a rousing speech today. Perry addressed what's called the CPAC meeting, Conservative Political Action Conference at the National Harbor Hotel here in suburban Maryland just a little while ago. It's the largest annual gathering of conservatives. Perry called for the federal government to take a step back, out of people's lives.


RICK PERRY, (R), GOVERNOR OF TEXAS: It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government's role. Defend our country! Provide a cogent foreign policy! And what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays.



PERRY: Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business! Stop hammering industry!


PERRY: Let the sleeping giant of American enterprise create prosperity again!


BLITZER: Arousing speech, indeed.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.


BLITZER: There seems to be a little bit of a fight going on within the GOP for the soul of the party.

BORGER: Yeah, well, there's a big fight going on within the Republican Party. And it's a healthy debate. It's a vibrant debate. But there is no pretending that it's going on. What you just saw with Rick Perry is somebody who is really appealing to conservatives in that party. You remember his spectacular -- last time around. I think he's tanned, rested and ready, as they say, for round two this time.

But, you know, you have Chris Christie, who appeared there this week. And ironically, Chris Christie got a really standing ovation, did very well with his conservative group. Remember, he wasn't invited the year before. Because he's been taking on the media. It's gotten a lot of Republicans on his side, the whole Bridgegate scandal. And he checked every box for conservatives.

And then, you know, you had Ted Cruz who also spoke to the group and said you know what, we cannot give in all of our fights on Obamacare, because we have to differentiate ourselves from Democrats. We don't win when we sound like Democrats. And he said, you know, "Remember President Romney, remember President McCain didn't work out so well for them." So there is a fight in the Republican Party orthopedic surgeon foreign policy, as well.

BLITZER: A major fight on important policy. Because you see the traditional neo-conservative type hawks, but there is a growing number of Republicans who are much more isolationist --


BORGER: The Rand Pauls --


BLITZER: -- Rand Paul, for example.

BORGER: The Rand Pauls of the world, more isolationist. You see Marco Rubio, who had a lot of problems with the Republican Party on immigration, because he was for a pathway to citizenship. Now he's talking about a more muscular foreign policy, kind of McCain-lite. Not as muscular as John McCain, but I think he's trying to stake out a position there. So with this conference, everybody is kind of auditioning for the base to see how they're received. And you know, judging from today, Perry was pretty well-received and may have had a little more time to plan a campaign than he did last time around.

BLITZER: He's got to be careful with one line. I know what he was trying to say, the government should get out of health care. He was opposed to Obama's health care, the Affordable Care Act. But remember, the government is deeply involved in health care for seniors, a program called Medicare.

BORGER: Yeah, I've heard of that one.

BLITZER: Which is very, very popular. And I believe that is the government involved in health care.

BORGER: Absolutely. And if you look at the polling on Obamacare, by the way, while more people still oppose it than support it, there is some polling out today that shows that when you go through the individual parts of Obamacare, like no preexisting conditions, being able to keep your kids on your health care policy until they're 26, those things people support. So it's very hard to tell people we're going to take away something from you that you already have. So that's why Republicans are searching for an alternative to the repeal strategy with a replace strategy.

BLITZER: Sure he doesn't want to repeal Medicare?

BORGER: No. No, no, no.

BLITZER: Thanks, very much.

Still ahead, both the U.S. and Russia agree on the need for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine. So what's the hold up? Former defense secretary, William Cohen, he is here. We'll discuss what's going on.

Also coming up, how much do you know about the death penalty? We'll take a closer look at a fascinating new CNN series, and talk with a former U.S. attorney general.


BLITZER: Ukraine now estimates 30,000 Russian troops occupy this Crimean peninsula. Also happening right now, U.S. guided missile destroyer steaming toward naval maneuvers planned before the crisis erupted.

At the border, 43 unarmed observers from Europe turned away a second day in a row. The camouflaged gunmen said they had orders not to let anyone through the checkpoint.

And the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was back in Sochi, Russia, today, for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics Games. The Ukraine team chose to compete, despite this crisis at home.

William Cohen, Republican Senator from Maine, former defense secretary, here with me right now.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Is there a peaceful resolution that will allow Crimea to remain part of the sovereign country of Ukraine, but will meet the minimal needs of Russia? They see -- they say they have some strategic interests there.

COHEN: Well, they do. And that's something we have to take into account. Russia has some very special interests in Crimea. But that issue could have been solved peacefully. - we know what the policy is of the Russians. They have guns, they have gas, they have gay bashing policy. Those are the things that perhaps they -- that stand for Russia. But in this particular case, they could have solved this very easily, without the use of force.

BLITZER: How do you solve it? What's your recommendation?

COHEN: Two things. Number one, we keep talking to them. That's better on --


BLITZER: The president spent an hour on the phone with Putin yesterday.

COHEN: Very important to keep talking. Also to take action. We have to make sure there is a penalty associated with this kind of violation of the U.N. Charter, violation of Ukraine sovereignty, violation of every agreement that has been agreed to by the Russians. So they have to pay a penalty for this. The penalty has to be economic. You saw what happened --


BLITZER: The pain on the Russian side would be significant. But they could then inflict a lot of pain on the European allies.

COHEN: They could. And one reason why, second point, we have to make sure that the energy resources in Europe are diversified. That we help the Europeans become less dependent upon Russia.

BLITZER: That's a long-term --

COHEN: It's long-term, but starting now, sending the signal now. In addition to the economic kind of actions that could be taken, they won't solve the problem initially, but sending the message to Russia and to the rest of the world, there are penalties associated with this. And, by the way, then trying to beef up some of the military capabilities of all of the NATO members. Taking some of the excess defense equipment out of Afghanistan, putting it into those countries that need --


BLITZER: To reassure them.

COHEN: To reassure them we're there, they're part of NATO.


BLITZER: The polls, they're nervous right now. The Baltic country states, they're pretty nervous, and the U.S. has taken some symbolic steps, sending some aircraft and troops into that and other equipment into those areas. But no one really thinks this is going to result in some sort of new world war or anything like that. But there is concern that the Cold War could be revised.

COHEN: It could be revived. And the thing is, if Mr. Putin, president Putin, is determined to swallow up Crimea, we need to take action that will make it a bone stuck in his throat.

BLITZER: Let's say this referendum they have scheduled in the coming days, the people in Crimea vote, say we don't want to be part of -- they say we want to be part of Russia. Many experts who study Crimea, they say the ethnic Russians, that's probably what they want.

COHEN: You could make that case for populations in other countries. You mentioned Lithonia, Lithuania, Latvia, they have fairly significant Russian populations, as well. You start that argument, and suddenly Russia, well, we've got to protect our Russian people in those countries. And then you formulate some kind of a crisis and then --


BLITZER: So what do we do though? The United States do, the NATO allies do, the Europeans, the E.U., if, in fact, this referendum does suggest, does show the majority of folks in Crimea want to leave Ukraine, go to Russia?

COHEN: We have to persuade the Russians this is not in their best interest. If they were to do that and support that, then they're going to set in motion a series of movements that are going to isolate Russia in a major way. Long term, this will ultimately hurt Russia. This will have an economic impact on them. And then what does he have to show for it? He's got his guns, yes, but if you can reduce the reliance of the Europeans on the gas, there goes his economy. And then let's see how happy the Russian people are under those circumstances.

So there are things we can do and must do. We should do it forcefully, but not with any kind of bravado and chest-bating and saying we're going oh to beat Putin back into a corner.

BLITZER: You were defense secretary during Clinton administration. Did you meet with Putin?

COHEN: I did meet with Putin.

BLITZER: What did you think of him? Because Madeline Albright said the other day on CNN he was delusional. Others like Mike Rogers, the chairman of the intelligence, say he's smart, savvy, shrewd, not delusional.

COHEN: We've got to stop the name-calling. That is pretty petulant on our part. It's counterproductive to start accusing President Putin of being in any way less than rational, that he's somehow messianic. He may have a vision for Russia which is insistent with the 21st century. But let's not demonize the president of Russia. Let's say, OK, we don't like what you have done, we think it's a mistake, you have jeopardizing our own future, as well as that of Ukraine and Central Europe, et cetera. But let's find a way to make this work, taking into account your interests that we can help preserve and to do so in a way that helps the Russian people.

BLITZER: Making comparisons to what the Nazis did before World War II.

COHEN: We have got to stop that. We have to stop trying to demonize the Russians. They're going to behave in a way that they think satisfies their historic role in the world. We have to persuade them and the Russian people that's not the way to go. There is a better way to go. And Poland is a good example. The other NATO countries, good example of what you can do with a free, open, prosperous society.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, good to have you back here.

COHEN: Good to be back.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, William Cohen, the former defense secretary of the United States.

Coming up, a chilling look inside the criminal justice system in the United States. A new CNN series, "Death Row Stories," aims to unravel the truth behind capital murder cases. We're going to ask the former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez for his take. That's next.


BLITZER: Right now, in the United States, more than 3,000 people waiting to be executed and at the same time there death row inmates being exonerated through DNA testing and other evidence.

Our new series, "Death Row Stories," picks apart different cases. One centers around law school intern, Diana Holt. She is like a detective taking a fresh look at testimony and refusing to give up. Watch this.


NARRATOR: In order to solve the mystery of who did murder Dorothy Edwards, Diana began looking for alternate suspects and found in the neighbor who discovered the body, James Holloway.

DIANA HOLT, LAW SCHOOL INTERN: I read the testimony of James Holloway and my head just about spun off of my neck. Wow!

NARRATOR: Holloway spent an unusually long period of time at the crime scene before calling the police.

HOLT: He goes inside Dorothy Edwards' house and sees that wall of blood for the first time. But he doesn't call police. He decides that he's going to go to the other-side neighbor and get her to come in the house with him. So he's at the closet door again and he decides to put gloves on. Then he opens the door and, lo and behold, there she was.

NARRATOR: Really? He put his gloves on before he went to open the door?


BLITZER: That case, an African-American man with an IQ of only 75, spent half of his life in prison for a crime he said he didn't commit.

Let's bring in the former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. He is joining us from "National." Thanks very much.

What's your opinion? The man was eventually freed. He didn't get death penalty and he spent half of his life in prison. I know you support the death penalty, but do you agree there are serious problems with this entire system?

ALBERTO GONZALEZ, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I agree that we have problems, Wolf. No question about it. I applaud efforts to ensure that, in fact, when the state imposes the death penalty, they are imposing it on individuals guilty of the crime. There many cases, however, in which there is no doubt that a person has committed a death penalty-worthy crime. There is a confession and multiple witnesses and direct evidence. For that reason, I think it is appropriate for the citizens of the state to decide that we should have a state law that authorizes the death penalty in the case. But I can't imagine anyone would support the death penalty being imposed in those cases where there is doubt about guilt or innocence.

BLITZER: Because this specific case that we featured in the series raises big issues about race, DNA testing, mental disabilities. So do you agree with the Supreme Court rulings that actually prevent people who are mentally disabled from being executed?

GONZALEZ: Whether or not I agree with it, it does represent the law of the land. The Supreme Court has found the death penalty to be constitutional, but has imposed limits on the imposition. For example, it cannot be imposed on juveniles and it cannot be imposed on juveniles that don't have a certain IQ requirement. The Supreme Court told us that the death penalty is constitutional and there are limits in terms of how we will impose it.

Again, I do believe in the death penalty, but only with respect to those who are guilty of committing the crime. And I support efforts to look at cases and use DNA and new technology to ensure that the imposition of this type of punishment by the state is, in fact, being inflicted on those who are guilty of the crime.

BLITZER: The Supreme Court said that death sentences have to be imposed by a jury and not just the judge. Do you think that's a good idea?

GONZALEZ: I think you can make the arguments either way. Jurors become very emotional and get invested in a particular case. They may get sympathetic towards the victim and the victim's family. The judge can be more impartial. There is a sense of comfort and relief in lives upon the jury of 12 to have a unanimous verdict of a death sentence and the fact that the evidence has to be overwhelming to convince a jury of 12.

Again, Wolf, I can make the arguments either way. Again, the key is ensuring that we are doing everything we can do so that we don't put an innocent person to death.

BLITZER: Very quickly, do you think the death penalty is a deterrent to those who will kill someone? GONZALEZ: Wolf, I haven't seen anyone that convinces me that it's much of a deterrent. From my perspective, I think the reason we impose the death penalty is because there are certain some kind of crimes for which it is appropriate to impose this ultimate punishment. Of course, that's a decision by the citizens of every state. But I'm not sure how much of a deterrent it is to someone who is intent on committing these kinds of crimes. I believe, in my soul, that there are certain crimes in which the death penalty is appropriate.

BLITZER: Alberto Gonzalez was the attorney general during the Bush administration.

Attorney General, thanks very much for joining us.

GONZALEZ: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And you want to miss the "Death Row Stories." The new CNN series was created by the Academy winners, Alex Goodbee (ph), Robert Redford, "Death Row Stories" premieres this Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. eastern. I think you want to watch it.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I will be back at 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room."

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts after a quick break.