Return to Transcripts main page


Exclusive Reports from Syria, Yemen; President Takes Personal Role in Debt Ceiling Negotiation; Rep. Bachmann Enters Presidential Race

Aired June 27, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thanks, Wolf and good evening, everyone. Tonight, an exclusive CNN reporting from Syria and from Yemen. Two countries in dramatic turmoil where CNN is the only American network with correspondents on the ground.

Plus, the president takes a personal role tonight in negotiations aimed at keeping the government from defaulting on its loans.

But we begin with the latest official entry into the 2012 presidential race.


REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDDIDATE: I want my candidacy for the presidency of the United States to stand for a moment when we, the people, to stand once again for independence from the government that has gotten too big and spends too much and has taken away too much of our liberties.


KING: To liberals, Michele Bachmann is a ring wing extremist who plays loose with the facts. To Tea Party activists, she is a hero willing to stand up not just to the Obama agenda, but to her own party's leadership.

Like her or not, there is no disputing this. At the moment, she is the candidate making the greatest impact on the race for the Republican nomination.

The new Iowa poll shows her near the top of the pack running evening with the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and well ahead of a half dozen other GOP contenders.

No wonder that even though she represents Minnesota in Congress, Bachmann chose her birth place Waterloo, Iowa, to make it official.


BACHMANN: I often say that everything I need to know I learned in Iowa. I learned those lessons at Hawthorne Elementary, at Valley Park Elementary, and at my home, which are a very short distance from where we are standing today because this is where my Iowa roots were firmly planted. It's these Iowa roots and my faith in God that guide me today.


KING: Iowa roots. Got it? Let's be honest. It's hard to see Bachmann winning the Republican nomination, but it's easy to see her having a dramatic impact on the race especially if she can maintain that level of support in Iowa.

Let's discuss the Bachmann factor with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin and from our national (inaudible) Chips Saltsman who helped the former Arkansas, Governor Mike Huckabee to a surprising Iowa victory back in the 2008 GOP presidential race.

Chip, let's start with that. When you see Michele Bachmann get in the race, we all know what happened in 2008. A lot of people are looking at this race saying if she can hold Iowa, what happens to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty?

What happens to the candidacy of the former Speaker Newt Gingrich? What happens to lesser-known candidates like Senator Santorum? Is she right now driving this race in some ways?

CHIP SALTSMAN, FORMER CAMPAIGN MANAGER, HUCKABEE FOR PRESIDENT: Certainly, in Iowa she is and you know, she's got to worry about what's next for her. I mean, she can be the front runner in Iowa for six months. If that's all she does, it won't get very far.

But she is probably going to move on to South Carolina and play like an Iowa South Carolina two-step, which is what Governor Huckabee tried to do four years ago.

But the special thing about Iowa is anybody can compete there. The Iowa straw polls coming up in August, I mean, you're talking about 10,000, 15,000 people. She is now a clearly expected to win that by a big margin.

And so who is going to catch on next? Who is going to get that next big oxygen burst out of Iowa? There is a lot of play here. It's a long time to the caucuses. It's still hot in Iowa because you know, the caucuses there are very cold over there.

KING: We got about seven months to get to the caucuses and you're right we'll see a lot of snow before we get to the caucuses, but she is leading the pack right now.

And Jessica and Gloria, I want you to listen to her here because a lot of people say she is a Tea Party favorite. A lot of people say she is a social conservative. She's anti-abortion. She's anti-gay rights. Listen here to Michele Bachmann say in her speech clearly making an effort to say I'm a broad-based Republican.


BACHMANN: It's made up of Americans from all walks of life like a three-legged stool. It's made up of peace through strength conservatives. I am one of those.

It is made up of fiscal conservatives and I am one of those. It is made up of social conservatives, and I am one of those and it's made up of the Tea Party Movement, and I am one of those.


KING: If she can expand her base just beyond the Tea Party or beyond just social conservatives, if you add those two up, that's not bad. But if she can expand, she is a factor.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: She's a factor. She is playing to the Republican base. I mean, more broadly than just the Tea Party. She is doing it effectively because she is communicating a message.

I mean, it is clear that she believes in something. That's why she is popping in this Republican field where you get the sense the mainstream candidates, the ones who were raising a lot of money, are media-savvy or being run by media-savvy operatives. Who are they and what is their character like? You really get a sense of who this person is and what she stands for.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think of her as the Howard Dean of this year in a way. Just the way in 2004 Howard Dean kind of shook up the Democrats. He shook up John Kerry, gave him a run for his money.

He didn't win Iowa and then there was a problem. But did he represent the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the same way she represents the Tea Party.

I tell you one thing. Rick Perry, if he gets in, that's a game- changer. That could take away a whole bunch of her strength right now. She's got a little bit of steam. She's going to take advantage of it until he gets in the race.

KING: Chip, if you're in Camp Palin, and most of us think she is not going to run, but we don't have a final decision. She is actually going to be in Iowa tomorrow for the Iowa premiere of a movie about her tenure as the governor up in Alaska. Does Bachmann's rise accelerate your schedule or do you not have to worry about that if you're Sarah Palin?

SALTSMAN: I don't think Sarah Palin worries about anybody else's schedule except her own. I don't think it bothers her one bit. She is going to do what she is going to do.

I assume she is not running for president. But if she gets in, that's another game changer. That would change the dynamic of the race from Iowa through New Hampshire, South Carolina, and everything.

KING: The knock on Michele Bachmann is sometimes what she says simply isn't true. Sometimes what she says is closer to true. I asked her about Chris Wallace had to apologize today for suggesting yesterday on Fox News Sunday that she was a flake. He took that back, but his point was she said on that program some time ago early in the Libya invasion that there were 30,000 people killed. She said she was quoting some report that number was nowhere near true.

Remember back when the president traveled to India several months ago, she was throwing around some exorbitant figure about what the trip would cost. It was posted on a blog somewhere. She used it several times even though people challenged her fact.

I asked her that question, does she now running as a presidential candidate have to meet a higher test. Listen.


BACHMANN: It isn't my job to go and fact check sources that come out in publication. I was using that --

KING: It's your job as a candidate.

BACHMAN: You have a very good point though. I think when you're in the presidential realm, I do think message discipline is required. I think that is something that all of us have areas we need to do better on. That's certainly one I'll pay a lot of attention to.


KING: You see, Jes, she has a lot of pros around her now. She hired some people away from Congressman Mike Pence. She had Ed Rollins, our former contributor running her campaign.

Ed is a very serious Republican pollster, some other people around her. She seems to have gotten the message, I need to grow. I need to get better and stronger. If I keep making mistakes, I'm in trouble.

YELLIN: Yes, and she has been much more disciplined. She stuck to the message. She did make a little mess today when she was in Iowa. She said it's good to be back in the home of John Wayne. It was actually the home of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer not John Wayne the action movie star.

Although his parents were allegedly born there so they covered that up, a little awkward, but look, if you go to, they are the standard for judging these things. She has a long list of falsehoods she's made and she -- this matters.

BORGER: She does, but it was interesting. In the CNN debate, the thing that struck me about her was this was a candidate who had been briefed, and I was told in the briefing she took meticulous notes, paid attention.

Had some messages she need to get out. Got them out and did well as a result in the debate. You can see how good she can be when she is on message. The problem is when she is out there on her own, and when you're an inexperienced candidate running for president, it's hard to learn on the job.

KING: Goes on for a long time. A lot of House parties.

BORGER: Barack Obama learned that, too.

KING: He sure did. He fell and made a lot of stumbles early. He happens to be president of the United States right now. There is a lesson in that, too.

Gloria, Jes, and Chip Saltsman, thanks for coming in tonight. Still ahead here, exclusive CNN reporting from Yemen and Syria where the Assad regime led it critics hold a big meeting today.

Next, your money and your government's huge debt crisis. President Obama steps into negotiations aimed at letting the government borrow more money. But Republicans have a high price for any deal.


KING: President Obama got directly involved today in talks aimed at reducing the deficit and raising the government's debt ceiling. The clock is ticking.

If the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2nd, the United States government will lack the authority to pay its bills. The president met separately with the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Republican Leader Mitch McConnell today.

While the White House is putting a positive spin on the situation saying, quote, "a significant deal is still possible," Senator McConnell is making clear that tax hikes are not an option he'll agree to. So can they sort all this out?

Let's talk it over. I'm joined by David Walker, the founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. He's also a former U.S. Comptroller General and also with us, Chrystia Freeland, the global editor-at-large for Reuters and the former U.S. managing editor of the "Financial Times."

I want to get first, just to the basic math, Chrystia and David. Just want to put up here previous debt limit increases and this is what gets discouraging. The United States is way up here, the current level of our debt.

We've got to hit that by August 2nd. Let me start with a simple question. If the United States does not do this, if these talks do not produce a deal what happens? What happens if we get to that point and the government can't borrow more money?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, GLOBAL EDITOR AT LARGE, REUTERS: Well, we don't know for sure what happens. But I think it is a pretty fair bet we have real global crisis. You know, I think the right comparison is with the collapse of Lehman in the fall of 2008.

The U.S. would be defaulting on its debt. It wouldn't be able to pay its creditors. The government wouldn't be able to pay its domestic bills.

And I think especially with the global economy being so weak right now that would be a financial crisis on par with that mega shock that the global economy sustained in 2008.

KING: So David, you understand Washington. I'm going to make this go away and bring this up, the basic framework of the debt debate here. As you watch this play out here, the Democrats say they want some tax increases. Here is one of the proposals they say essentially raise taxes, take away deductions for wealthy.

Republicans say, no, this has to start with steep spending cuts. They want a balance budget amendment tossed in here. The Democrats say we could raise some money by ending oil and gas subsidies. We can also some new financial transactions.

Here are things in the middle, cuts in student loan subsidies. I'm going to put this one right at the top, reducing Medicare expenditures. What about cuts in military spending? What about cuts in ethanol and other farm subsidies?

And Republicans say they are open some fee increases, what is missing here, David, to get this done?

DAVID WALKER, FORMER U.S. COMPTROLLER GENERAL: Well, there is no question that the problem is primarily a spending problem. There is a lot of common ground in what could be done to cut spending. Where the rubber meets the road is the Republicans do not want to consider anything that could even be called a tax increase.

For example, if you end up reducing deductions, exemptions, credits and exclusions, getting rid of tax expenditures that, you know, frankly people can agree makes sense to get rid of them, but result in additional revenues, Republicans don't have that on the table.

Frankly, right now doesn't even have the possibility of revenues if you don't hit certain deficit targets or debt-to-GDP targets on the table. And quite frankly that's where I think they are being unreasonable.

KING: Well, you mentioned debt-to-GDP. I just want people to understand that's a mouthful and some people don't quite understand the economics of it. The dark blue line is the president's budget.

This is current policy where we're heading and this is the percentage of debt-to-GDP. Then you see down here the Obama framework they had put out. Not a document just a framework.

You see the House Republican and this fiscal commission that says essentially get debt-to-GDP way down here, but Chrystia to you first, the president is finally getting involved.

The vice president was involved in these negotiations for weeks. Do you get the sense, you know how Washington works. They say there is no deal, but they get a deal at the end. But as we have seen in other recent instance, they get a deal at the end, does that climate exist right now or does the looming 2012 campaign make that a lot harder?

FREELAND: Well, I think yes to both of your questions. Is that an acceptable answer, John? I think the looming 2012 campaign does makes it a lot more complicated, particularly on the Republican side.

I think we are seeing sort of an interesting dance particularly right now between John Boehner and Eric Cantor. You know, I think all the Republicans actually do want to deal because the Republican Party doesn't want to be blamed for causing a brand-new global economic crisis.

On the other hand, none of the Republicans wants to be the guy who signed a deal to increase taxes. I think that's the dilemma for the Republican Party right now. If I could, John, the other irony of this whole discussion is economic growth is the paramount problem right now, not the deficit.

What is sort of astonishing is the extent to which the Republicans have managed to dominate the economic debate and turn the focus, make the agenda being deficit cutting rather than economic stimulus.

KING: And so David, based on that, people say cutting spending could make it worse right now even though you want to get the deficit down. What is your sense? Did the president wait too long to get deeply involved here or is his timing about right to try to bang heads at the end?

WALKER: I think the president waited too long to react to the Simpson Bowles Commission Report. He did get into the game on April 13th. He designated the vice president, which is the second ranking officer under the constitution in the United States, which is plenty high level enough.

Frankly, there is no question the president and vice president talk frequently. But now it's at the highest levels. It's the president, it's the senate leaders, it's the House leaders. It's shocking to me the house is out for a 10-daybreak when after we come back from July 4th, nobody should take any breaks until we have a deal.

KING: Excellent message there from David Walker. Maybe the politicians will listen to that. David Walker and Chrystia Freeland, we'll keep in touch over the course of the next very high-stakes month. We'll see if the president can work this out with the Republicans.

Up next here, a massive wildfire in New Mexico threatens an important government facility. Be back in a moment.


KING: Welcome back. If you're just joining us, here is the latest news you need to know right now.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is closed due to a giant wildfire that's threatening the facility. Look at these pictures. Residents in the surrounding area also have been evacuated.

Look at these stunning photographs we're getting. The Los Alamos plant there. Some of these coming in through I-Report. We'll continue to track this important story. Dramatic wildfires for that facility.

Moving on though, the former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich was convicted today of 17 charges related to public corruption. Prosecutors accused him among other things of attempting to sell President Obama's former Senate seat.

Let's check in with our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Jeff, this is going to be a healthy time in prison, no doubt for the former governor.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: A really long time. First of all, he is eligible for hundreds of years given the number of charges. But especially bad for him is that he testified and the jury thought he lied. Judges punished defendants who lie on the witness stand. So I think he could easily be looking at eight to 10 years in jail.

KING: He said he was stunned by the verdict. Are you surprised in all of this? This was a retrial, a hung jury first time around.

TOOBIN: You know, the government usually gets this person on a second trial. I was surprised he got a hung jury the first time. The U.S. attorney's office in the northern district of Illinois has a very good record on corruption cases. This guy was doomed mostly because he was guilty.

KING: Just stay with us, Jeff because today the Supreme Court overturned an Arizona law that provided taxpayer finance funding to candidates for office who were outspent by privately-funded opponents.

A slim majority at the high court said that law, the state law in Arizona was a violation of free speech. Jeff, do you see this as part of a trend by this court?

TOOBIN: Yes, a big important trend. The most important case was Citizens United last year. But this case is part of that trend that says, look, contributions to candidates are protected by the first amendment.

Expenditures by candidates are protected by the first amendment. What this means is that the Supreme Court is in the process of deregulating politics.

They are basically throwing out any rules that interfere with people's ability to spend money or to raise money. That means it's really going to be the law of the jungle soon when it comes to campaigns in this country. KING: You say the law of the jungle. Their rationale is free speech, right, first amendment, free speech. This is America. If you got it, you can spend it.

TOOBIN: This is a court that really cares deeply about free speech and the first amendment. The other big case today is they struck down the violent video games law in California because they said that violated free speech.

Liberals generally like that kind of free speech. But liberals don't like it when the court strikes down campaign finance rules. But it's really part of the same philosophy, at least on the part of the conservative majority.

They really don't like restrictions on anything that you can interpret as a kind of speech. They clearly regard campaign spending as a kind of speech.

KING: I'm shocked you would say Americans view Supreme Court decisions through their own political prism.

TOOBIN: How about that, shocking.

KING: Jeff Toobin, our senior analyst. Thanks, Jeff, for being in tonight. Thank you.

Just ahead here, an arrest warrant issued for the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. We'll see who issued that warrant and if it has any teeth.


KING: Moammar Gadhafi tonight is the subject of an international arrest warrant. The Libyan dictator, his son, Saif Al-Islam and Gadhafi's intelligence chief are accused at the International Criminal Court in The Hague of murdering and persecuting their own citizens.

The charges and the warrants add to the international pressure, but as yet, there is little indication Colonel Gadhafi is willing to yield power.

CNN's Ben Wedeman live for us tonight in Misrata. Ben, how does this - first, let me start. The simple reaction in the country especially among the opposition that there is an arrest warrant for their leader?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Certainly here in Misrata, John, the reaction was ecstatic. People out in the street celebrating, cars honking, young men shooting their rifles into the air.

People we spoke to, all of them very happy about this. But what's interesting is that maybe some Libyans don't realize this is an arrest warrant. Many of them seem to think it is a death sentence.

I spoke to one man who said he wanted to cut Gadhafi into little pieces. I explained that actually there is supposed to be a trial going on and that there is due process, but I think the finer points of international justice have been lost on many Libyans.

They see this simply as yet another vote of support for them against Moammar Gadhafi. John --

KING: And that's an important point. I just want to go over to the map and show the current state of play in Libya. As we do that, Ben is in Misrata for us, that's one of the opposition controlled towns.

You see the different - the key here, opposition with the strikes. The green is the regime. Yellow towns are in dispute. In the sense though now, NATO is not going to arrest Moammar Gadhafi. We have to assume. The opposition I assume has no way of getting into Tripoli and arresting Moammar Gadhafi. So will this change their tactics on the battlefield or is it just symbolically a victory?

WEDEMAN: Really it's symbolically an important victory. It doesn't make any difference at all. What it does actually do is that it sort of closes a window for Gadhafi to leave Libya under some sort of arrangement where he might go into exile abroad.

Now, basically, his back is to the wall. He realizes that he either has to fight and overcome the rebels, his enemies or he will have to fight to the death. And certainly that seems to be the thinking of also the rebels, that they have said time and time again that they are not willing to make any sort of political arrangements or a settlement with Moammar Gadhafi.

Their goal is to see him ousted from power. And, of course, what they'd like to do is militarily oust them from power. But what we've seen in eastern Libya and also here in Misrata, which is only 210 kilometers from the capital Tripoli, is that the rebels -- they're very good at urban warfare. But when it comes to open territory, open terrain, like what you have between Misrata and Tripoli, they are simply outgunned. They a hoping that NATO will somehow be able to destroy Gadhafi's army and just open the way for them to go down that long highway to Tripoli.

But, militarily, they simply aren't capable of overcoming Moammar Gadhafi with the weapons and men they have at their disposal -- John.

KING: CNN's Ben Wedeman, live for us tonight in Misrata here in Libya. Obviously, we'll continue to watch this as it plays out, watch the reaction from the regime as well.

CNN's Jim Clancy raised the question of what next for Gadhafi during the exclusive interview today with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: He's dug in pretty hard. And we, along with our international partners, have made it very clear that he needs to leave power. And he also needs to stop the assault on his own people.

But part of what the International Criminal Court has done is to take credible evidence and pull it all together. And it tells a fairly horrifying story about what he and his close associates, including family members, have been willing to do to stay in power.


KING: So, Jim, she says, tells a fairly horrifying story. But any sense of now what? Gadhafi is not going to turn himself in. Just tough words from the secretary or anything to come of it?

JIM CLANCY, CNNI ANCHOR: Look, it's a tough spot for the administration to be in, John, because what's caught the administration off guard or out is that Moammar Gadhafi did not roll over with the first week of NATO airstrikes. It's the same thing that the French face, the British face, everybody that's involved in all of this.

Will indicting him make any difference? I see -- the only place I see it making any difference, Ben pointed it out, it bolsters the opposition. And right now, that's the best NATO can hope for.

This is going to be long. This isn't going to be easy at all. It's a mess.

KING: And the main reason you're here for this exclusive interview was the State Department's report on human trafficking. And, Jim, Secretary Clinton was defensive when you asked her about the lack of U.S. government funding to combat the global problem.

Let's listen.


CLINTON: I don't accept the premise of that. I think that part of the reason why I wanted to include ourselves in this report is that I think we're stronger diplomatically if we can say to countries, look, we're taking a hard look at ourselves. Now, we have done so much in the last 10-plus years. And a lot of what we do is at the local and state level, not just at the federal level. So, if you look at all the resources from D.A. offices and police stations, to judges who have been trained and really sensitized, all the way across our country, we are making enormous progress.


CLANCY: Well, enormous progress, maybe. And I think the secretary, you know, is defensive about America's position because America is leading the way. The State Department is raising, John, some really important issues and taking an important principled stand.

But consider this -- there are about 17,000 murders in the United States. And I learned this week as I talked to experts. There are about 17,000 outsiders trafficked into the United States. This doesn't count the hundred thousand kids that are on the streets as runaways.

Well, if you want to solve murder, there's 50,000 homicide investigators out there. Hillary Clinton talked about the state, the local levels. Well, that's fair to talk about. But at the state, the local, the federal levels, do you know how many experts we have in law enforcement on human trafficking?

Somewhere between 50 and 100 are the best estimates. We are way behind that. People are saying, we have a war on terror. We have a war on drugs.

Where is the war on human trafficking taken seriously?

KING: And what was your sense of her personal involvement? She pushed back a little bit. This was an issue --

CLANCY: Well --

KING: I remember in the Clinton presidency, this was an issue she talked about as first lady.

CLANCY: She's passionate about it. She's passionate about it. But she also realizes the budgetary constraints that the U.S. faces. She also realizes that there are people out there that are working on this right now.

The U.S. is trying to support them in every move they make in a very difficult circumstance. You've got to win over the public first. They've got to recognize that there's a problem, as well.

KING: Great to see you here in Washington, Jim Clancy.

CLANCY: Great to be with you, John.

KING: Thank you.

Let's turn now to Yemen, which is in the midst of its own anti- government uprising.

A few weeks back, the presidential palace was attacked by rebels and President Ali Abdullah Saleh who's been in power for more than three decades was injured. He left Yemen and went to Saudi Arabia for treatment.

We are now told President Saleh is expected to make some sort of public appearance. But it's unclear if he's still in Saudi Arabia or secretly returned to Yemen.

CNN is the only American network in Yemen.

Our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is in the capital for us tonight.

Nic, what do we know about this talk that the president is to make some statement? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Conflicting information is what we have here at the moment, conflicting (AUDIO BREAK). The presidential advisors are saying that President Saleh last week was on his way back here to Yemen. He'd be in the capital by Friday. That didn't happen. The same advisor then said there would be a speech that would be happening some time about now. That hasn't happened.

And yet the top presidential spokesman who's here in the capital, Sanaa, is now saying the speech is not going to happen any time soon. It's not clear why there are mixed messages coming from close presidential advisors here right now. Perhaps bad communication with the president who still believed to be on his sickbed in Saudi Arabia, in a hospital in the capital Riyadh.

Perhaps here, what we're really sensing is a drum from presidential loyalists who are maintaining what President Saleh is saying, that he does intend to come back. That he doesn't intend to heed international pressure and step down. As the advisors here have a vested interest in the president returning and continuing in power, because without him, they'll likely be sidelines, as well, John.

KING: You make an important point, that without them -- without him, they would be sidelines as well.

What is your sense? We heard reports for weeks, obviously, about chaos, about perhaps al Qaeda benefiting from the lack of a strong central government with the president out of the country. Now that we're actually in the country, from what you can see, what is the sense of how stable is the country right now?

ROBERTSON: People are buying their gas on the black market. It's gone up six times its normal value. Food is up three times its normal cost. You see a lot of people on bicycles, motorbikes, because they can't afford the transport of motor vehicles. And that's just in the capital here.

There's an easy cease-fire here. A lot of check points on the road. Soldiers -- a lot more checkpoints at night -- soldiers checking drivers and passengers with flashlight after dark. Very few street lights around.

KING: Our Nic Robertson, the only American correspondent on the ground in Yemen. We'll continue his reporting -- Nic, thanks.

And still ahead here, leaders of the successful effort to allow same-sex marriage in New York turn their attention to new challenges, including getting President Obama to change his mind on the issue.

But next, more of our exclusive overseas reporting. Arwa Damon and Hala Gorani inside Syria.


KING: It was a dramatic day in Syria. Political figures critical of the Assad regime met publicly in Damascus, with the blessing of the government. On top of that, after weeks of saying no, Syria now has allowed CNN correspondents access to the country where hundreds have died in a brutal crackdown over the course of three months of political protests.

Earlier today, our Arwa Damon visited a town in northwestern Syria where the government account of the violence differs dramatically from the reports of human rights groups and activists.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sawan Aziz (ph) is just saying that when he arrived into this room, back here, he found three bodies. One of them, he says, was decapitated. The others had gun shot wounds to the torso. And he's saying it is seen as if they had been beaten, as well.

Back here, there's a little bit of debris, a shoe and some dark stains on the wall. It's hard to tell exactly what it is.


KING: Arwa Damon is with us now from Damascus, along with CNN's Hala Gorani.

And, Arwa, let's start with you on your visit there to the northwestern town where we talked over the last couple of weeks about the violence there. Essentially, what you get is two competing, very different versions of history.

DAMON: You most certainly do, John. In that clip there, that was an individual who said he was an eyewitness showing us inside the military compound in Jisr al-Shugur where the government is saying a massacre took place when armed gangs, terrorist elements stormed inside, killing more than 100 Syrian security forces.

Now, the government is maintaining that the crackdown in Jisr al- Shugur and the surrounding villages took place to root out these terrorist gangs that it's saying were trying to put up an al Qaeda style Islamic caliphate. Activists and other residents of the town that we spoke to who were fleeing from the violence were at the Turkey-Syrian borders said that they were simply peaceful demonstrators, that they had no intention of carrying out any violence whatsoever, that the military was the one that forced them out with just the clothes on their backs -- John.

KING: And, so, Arwa, let me stay with you for a minute. Is there any evidence to back up the government's claims or when you go in, especially on a government-sanctioned tour like this, is it essentially a he said/she said?

DAMON: It is, John. And it's very difficult. Even though we're actually there on the ground to really differentiate between the truth of what we're seeing and what people are telling us, simply because we are constantly in the presence of government minders. The eyewitnesses that we spoke to were provided to us by the government. There were a handful of residents in Jisr al-Shugur. Some of them came forward and were saying that the military had effectively been protecting them. But then there were some cases where we went up at random and spoke to individuals who very uncharacteristically either tried to side away from us or were not talkative at all.

KING: And as this unfolds and as we try to piece this together exactly what has happened over the course of the past few months, Hala Gorani, you have this remarkable, in some ways, meeting of the oppositions. People who say the regime must go allowed to meet by that very regime. What are we to make of that?

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's an interesting question because you do have genuine opponents of the regime that met today in Damascus. Some of the people who were gathered today in this Damascus hotel have done hard jail time, John -- some of them several years in the '80s and '90s. So, they are genuine opponents to the regime.

But you have many critics that have been saying about this gathering that it is giving the regime this veneer of legitimacy. That, in effect, with these opponents gathering with the authorization of the government, that they are, in fact, allowing the government to say, look, we are allowing people to talk while the killings continue. In fact, one of the dissidents we were expecting at the meeting today that I attended at this hotel in Damascus (INAUDIBLE) ended up not showing up. He said, "I can't do it" -- so long as this is going to make the government look like it's tolerating opposition while the crackdown continues, John.

KING: So, Hala, for those who say the regime must go, what is their next test? Those who did come to the meeting, those who say, OK, we can at least get together to start a conversation -- what is the next test to see whether there is true openness, true dialogue or whether this is simply a propaganda ploy?

GORANI: Well, it's also an interesting question, because what do opponents to the regime who don't want dialogue -- what do they do? What options do they have?

Their options are to go out and protest or outside of the country, some of the activists who say they represent the demonstrators on the streets in various cities across Syria, is for them to continue to protest. But what kind of impact can they have? How much can they weaken this regime by the sheer force of their presence on the streets of Syria when the crackdown continues?

So, the big question for Syria is how does the transition happen? Can it possibly happen gradually? Or as the opponents to the regime who don't want dialogue at all, who wants the fall of the regime, must it happen in the dramatic fashion the way we saw in Egypt. That is the big question for Syria.

But one of the lessons we have learned from today's opposition meeting is that, at best, this opposition is divided. We have on the one hand, those who want to work within the framework and on the other, those who reject the regime entirely.

So, the path is very uncertain for them going forward in Syria, John.

KING: And let me ask each of you briefly in closing, we have been complaining for months now that CNN has not been allowed access to find out exactly what is going on, try to confirm independently these reports of horror and bloodshed that we get. Why now? Why now has the Syrian regime decided to say, come on in, here's the visa?

GORANI: Well, I think there's one possible explanation. And that is that the regime has started to feel the pressure of the terrible P.R. and the terrible image that it has projected worldwide since the beginning of this crackdown on these demonstrators. And that it believes by allowing a limited number of foreign reporters, at the very least they can try to shape the message.

As Arwa was saying, we are monitored by government minders. But we are still able to piece together more or less what's going on. And we still, and Arwa will agree with me, I know, hope to gain more and more access as our presence here is extended.

DAMON: And just to add quickly to that, also I think is the fact that the government to a certain degree does now believe that it can at least control the message or control what the media is seeing. There is this sense that they do maybe, to a certain degree, have a better grasp on what is happening in the country, and they can limit our movements as best they can. And really what we do see, by and large, is what the government wants us to see through that specific government prism.

GORANI: And one last word, unless we are able to cover these demonstrations, unless our range of motion is extended to get a true idea of what's going on in Syria, is going to be very difficult. That said, getting the perspective from Damascus is invaluable, as well.

KING: Some perspective better than none. But we will continue to fight for more independent roaming, if you will.

Hala Gorani, Arwa Damon, two great reporters on the ground in Damascus -- thank you so much.

Coming up, New York says, "Ii do" to same-sex marriage. Might this be the vote that changes President Obama's mind? And how long is the gay community willing to wait before it walks away?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All across this country, New York --



KING: Gay rights parade there you are seeing in New York yesterday, a celebration. On Friday, late Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation allowing same sex marriage in New York state.

Let's take a look at the map. New York now joins five other states in allowing same-sex marriage. Iowa, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and the District of Columbia. So, six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.

If you look at the map as well, seven additional states allow either civil unions or domestic partnerships -- New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, California, Nevada, Washington and Oregon out on the West Coast.

But how do people feel nationally about this issue and is that evolving? Gallup has a recent poll that shows 53 percent of Americans say, yes, same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, 45 percent of Americans say no. So, an even divide almost there, a majority yes, though.

Interesting, if you look at, Gallup breaks down by party affiliation as well -- 69 percent of Democrats say yes, same sex couple should be allowed to marry. That's up a bit from last year. Fifty-nine percent of independents say yes, same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. That's up 10 points from a year ago.

But look at the number among Republicans. Fewer than three in 10 Republicans say yes, same-sex couples should be allowed to marry -- 28 percent of Republicans say yes, this year, exactly the same number a year ago.

So, will there be a national impact from New York state's new law allowing same-sex marriage?

Let's discuss that issue with Christine Quinn. She's the speaker of the New York City Council. She has for years advocated for this law. And two years ago, I visited with her in her home to discuss it.

Madam Speaker, let me start by saying congratulations.


KING: Why the difference? Two years ago -- two years ago, you talked about the fear of the unknown. And you came up a few votes short. What happened? What made the difference?

QUINN: Well, I think what made the difference is nobody lost focus or hope or faith after 2009.

And we analyzed what went wrong. We organized a new campaign. We were more focused. We didn't repeat our mistakes.

And we had the tremendous benefit this time of an incredibly popular governor, Governor Cuomo, who made this one of the top three priorities of his first year.

And all of that focus, hard work and support of the governor came together in a really remarkable way. KING: And so, as we ask now what comes next, how might this affect the national debate about same-sex marriage, I want to focus on that point you just made, because in the reaction to the New York legislature passing this law, Governor Cuomo signing this law, and we saw people marching in the streets saying "thank you, Governor Cuomo" and "promise kept."


KING: My question is, you have an energized base that supports their governor. What about the president of the United States going forward? Because we talked about this issue two years ago. I want you to listen to exactly what you said about President Obama who was on the record opposing same-sex marriage. Here's what you said two years ago.



QUINN: President Obama, I'm very grateful and excited that he's the most pro-LGBT president we have ever had. He's not perfect on this issue. And I want him to be perfect.

But he is very good. The best we've ever had. And I am fairly certain that pretty soon he will be perfect on this issue.

And what we just have to do is keep talking to him and keep educating him. And keep working with him.


KING: It's two years later, which I would venture is past pretty soon. He's still not perfect in your view is he?

QUINN: No, he's still not perfect. You know, that said, the position he has taken as it relates to the Department of Justice fighting the Defense of Marriage Act is an enormous step forward for a president and his Department of Justice to come out against a law that was passed by the Congress is a very powerful statement.

So, you know, although I want perfect soon, I am very gratified because I think that is another important step forward -- a step that we've never really seen before or certainly haven't seen in a really long time. So, he's headed in the right direction.

KING: Headed in the right direction. You say you are a politician. You understand compromise. You're also perhaps a little more patient than the president than some might be who aren't involved in politics.

I want you to listen to the reaction as the president started to discuss related issues at a fundraiser just last week.

QUINN: Right.

KING: Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That's why I ordered federal agencies to extend the same benefits to gay couples that go to straight couples wherever possible. That's why we're going to keep fighting until the law no longer -- I heard you guys.



KING: So you hear people in the crowd chanting marriage when the president is talking about some of the other steps you talk about. Here's my question: if we're going forward in 2012 and we have a much more competitive political environment, because of the tough economy, because of other issues that will make this a much more competitive campaign than 2008, are there any questions in your mind that some gay Americans or some liberal Americans who just support gay rights might say, Mr. President, you haven't delivered for us, we're going to stay home?

QUINN: You know, I think how the process works is that's grassroots activists, communities, voters push elected officials, right? And we push the president to be better and I think that's part of what got "don't ask, don't tell" repealed. It's part of why the president took the bold step he did around the Defense of Marriage Act. So, I expect all in the LGBT community, myself included, to push and push and push the president and every other important elected official until they are where we want them to be.

That doesn't mean we're going to abandon them in the voting booth but it does mean our job is to keep that pressure, keep that conversation, keep that dialogue. And it has been effective with the president and it was unbelievably effective in the New York state legislature. That's why we won because we never let up.

KING: You say you never let up. The president has said he's personally had an evolution on this issue , that he's more open to thinking about supporting same-sex marriage.

Do you think by the same he accept re-nomination, will he have evolved to the place where you and he are in the same place?

QUINN: Well, I hope so. You know, the sooner, the better in my opinion. I would never dare to say what's going on in the president's mind -- but, you know, sooner, the better. I'm patient but not that patient.

KING: When we had that conversation two years ago, you were with your partner Kim and you were saying that you wanted to wait for this day to get married in New York City in New York state. When will that be?

QUINN: Spring of 2012. We decided over the weekend.

KING: And how long after that wedding will you announce your candidacy for New York mayor?

QUINN: Oh, now, now, John. I think you are getting some of these questions from my father, not Kim. So, that's one big announcement at the time, spring of 2012, is enough for a girl in one day.

KING: You don't have -- you still aren't sure you're going to run for mayor or you just don't want to talk about it today.

QUINN: You know, I have a lot going on. The same day marriage equality passed in New York, the mayor and I outlined the framework of next year's budget where we prevented teacher layoffs and kept all our fire houses open. So, I'm going to plan my marriage and do my day job and let the future be what the future is going to be.

KING: We'll keep in touch as that all unfolds. Speaker Quinn, thanks for your time today.

QUINN: OK. Thank you.

KING: You did notice, though, at the end, where she said we balanced the budget. We didn't have to lay off any teachers or firefighters, didn't have to layoff any firefighters. She's running for mayor. She's just not prepared to tell you that just yet. She will in the days ahead. That's New York City.

How important is Iowa in our national politics? Well, Michele Bachmann announced her candidacy for president there today.

Guess what? Sarah Palin and President Obama will both be in Iowa tomorrow. Sarah Palin attending the Iowa premiere of "The Undefeated." That is a documentary, a pro-Palin documentary about her life. Maybe she'll drop us a hint on whether or not she's going to get into the race for president.

President Obama will be there to talk about the economy and jobs.

So, obviously, Iowa will be part of our coverage here tomorrow night. That's all the time we do have this evening, though. Have a great night.

"IN THE ARENA" starts right now.