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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Bush Heads Home After Iraq Surprise; Congressional Reaction To President Bush's Visit; Murtha Suspends Bid To Be House Majority Leader; Rove Won't Be Charged In CIA Leak Case; White House Capitalizing On Recent News; Joseph Biden Interview

Aired June 13, 2006 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Ali, very much.
And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time. Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

Happening now, President Bush heads home after his Iraq surprise. It's midnight in Baghdad, where Mr. Bush dropped in on Iraq's new prime minister and on U.S. troops. Our own John King went along for the ride. He will give us the inside story.

Just a short while ago, some Democrats weighed in on the president's day trip. Did Mr. Bush give them ammunition or steal their thunder? I will talk to a leading critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy, Senator Joe Biden.

Another major story this hour, the final word on Karl Rove and the CIA leak investigation. It's 4:00 p.m. here in Washington where a collective sigh of relief is coming from the White House. What is the president's political guru doing to celebrate?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Bush is flying back home right now, his secret mission to Iraq accomplished. He capped his whirlwind visit by thanking U.S. troops for their service and their sacrifice.

With their lives and his legacy on the line, Mr. Bush went to Baghdad today to, as he put it, "look Iraq's new leaders in the eye." It was a surprising and dramatic show of support for the fledgling democracy. The president's war council watched the meeting on a video hookup from Camp David. We thought Mr. Bush would be there too until he dropped his bombshell.

Our chief national correspondent John King is the network television pool reporter on the president's trip. He filed this report from Baghdad for the U.S. pool.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Air Force One arrived in Baghdad after a secret overnight flight. First up on the president's surprise trip to Iraq, a heavily armed helicopter ride into the heart of the city's fortified Green Zone. The daylight arrival only added to the security concerns.

Iraqi officials were kept in the dark, Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki receiving a five-minute heads up that the president of the United States was here to see him. Mr. Bush's official schedule called for him to be on the other end of this meeting, at cozy Camp David back home for a second day of Iraq planning meetings.

Instead, this first face-to-face meeting with Iraq's new leader and his key ministers, at the culmination of top-secret planning dating back almost a month. Facing critical decisions about U.S. troop levels, reconstruction spending, and a host of other issues, aides say Mr. Bush wanted to meet the Prime Minister Maliki in person as soon as possible after the completion of the new Iraqi cabinet, and wanted to visit Baghdad as a gesture of support.

It is also one which the White House hopes helps back home, where the unpopular war is the biggest election year drag on the president and his party. This dramatic visit part of yet another White House effort to rally public support or at least halt the erosion.

Secrecy was paramount. Monday's planning session was organized at remote Camp David instead of the White House to allow the president and a handful of top aides to leave undetected after dinner. In hindsight, maybe a playful hint during a break Monday, when the president talked of how much he was looking forward to a secure video session with the new Iraqi cabinet.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And that will be a very interesting experience for all of us to be able to talk to our respective counterparts.

KING: Of the top-level team on hand, the White House says only Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Rice, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld knew the president wouldn't be there for breakfast. He surprised both the Iraqi and most of the U.S. cabinet by joining Tuesday's session from the Baghdad end of the video link.

BUSH: And Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for this opportunity to visit with your cabinet.

KING: Iraqi officials have talked of dropping U.S. troop levels from more than 130,000 now to below 100,000 by the end of the year. While the White House would welcome that, previous Iraqi governments have struggled.

So one goal of the visit was to get a personal confidence level in the new prime minister and his national security team, and a face- to-face assessment from the U.S. military commander, General George Casey. The president made no promises in this pep rally with troops stationed in the Green Zone which serves as coalition headquarters.

BUSH: I thank you for your sacrifice. I thank you for your service. I thank you for making history.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: That was our chief national correspondent, John King, the network television pool reporter on this secret trip to Baghdad. It took an elaborate ruse and lots of planning to get the president to Iraq without many people knowing about it.

Our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is joining us from the White House now with more on this back story. It's always elaborate for the president to travel especially so, as you know, Suzanne, to Baghdad.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It really was quite incredible, Wolf, when you think about it, that two-day war summit at Camp David was really a big part of this elaborate ruse that happened.

It was Friday here at the White House a senior administration official held a series of briefings with reporters here to give kind of a tick-tock, the schedule of that two-day summit, even making a point of playing up the fact that it would be the first time they would have a video teleconference, simultaneous translation between these two cabinets meeting for the first time.

And then it was just yesterday that the White House announced that there was going to be this Rose Garden press conference when the president got back. Clearly there was just a handful of reporters that were sworn to secrecy, including your own John King, of course, who knew about this trip, but those back at Camp David who were actually covering the summit were clueless -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I remember the first and only other trip the president made to Iraq, Thanksgiving 2003. We couldn't even report about that trip until he was wheels up outside of Iraq, on his way back towards the United States. At least this time they let us know that the president was there while he was actually in Iraq. I suppose that's a sign of progress?

MALVEAUX: It's a sign of progress, but also there's another part of that story too, which is there were two hours when he was on the ground they did not want the word to get out. It was actually the Iraqis who leaked that information first and then, of course, it catapulted and got out and the American media all jumped on this.

But it was really interesting back then, that Thanksgiving trip. It really sent a little bit of a boost in the polls for the president, who was about at a 55 percent approval rating at that time. We're now looking at numbers much, much lower, about 33, 35 percent approval rating. The White House certainly hoping they'll get a little bit of a boost from this trip as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll probably see in the next few days. Suzanne, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, only moments ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emerged from a briefing with lawmakers on Iraq. Like President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld refused to be pinned down about a possible plan to start bringing troops home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: ... keep moving and strengthening their security forces, and as they do so, we will continue to pass off responsibility to them. There will be meetings with General Casey and the minister of defense and the prime minister in the weeks ahead discussing at what pace we are going to be able to draw down our forces. And it will all be done in a very orderly way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Also on Capitol Hill just a few moments ago, some Democrats offered their take on the president's trip to Iraq.

Our congressional correspondent Dana Bash is standing by with reaction, a little bit more on the politics behind all of this -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Well, first I can tell you that the secretaries of state and defense are heading over to the House side to brief House members on Iraq just like they did in the Senate. And you saw the secretary of defense come out and make his statement.

As you can imagine, Republican senators and Democrats came out with very different views on what they heard in that closed door meeting, and Republicans say they heard signs of progress from members of the administration talking to them.

But Democrats say that they simply didn't hear anything new. In fact, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee said he hopes that the president's trip to Iraq will be a sign that they will change policy soon.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: The administration thus far has not had a strategy for victory. They have had a strategy how to avoid outright defeat. And the president's trip to Iraq today hopefully carries with it more than his just a showing of support for the new Iraqi government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, another top Democrat came out and said that he thinks that this Bush trip will actually lead to a redeployment of troops. Now that issue, withdrawing troops from Iraq, Wolf, is becoming this week a big part of the political debate here on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The president has made a quick and now not so secret trip to Iraq.

BASH (voice-over): As President Bush arrived in Baghdad, his former Democratic opponent was giving a speech slamming the Bush Iraq policy and pushing his alternative.

KERRY: I believe we need a hard and fast deadline, not an open- ended commitment of U.S. forces so that we shift responsibility and demand responsibility from the Iraqis themselves.

BASH: Kerry will offer a Senate amendment this week to pull combat troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. And at the same conference, the House Democratic leader stood firmly behind a proposal by Congressman John Murtha which would also bring troops home.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: That is not cut and run. That is at the earliest practical date.

BASH: Republicans couldn't be happier.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: It's going to send exactly the wrong message but I think we'll demonstrate the difference in approach that the Democratic Party seems to have these days at saying no to every positive suggestion.

BASH: GOP leaders are well aware the increasingly unpopular war could jeopardize their prospects this election year, so they hope to take advantage of rare good news on the ground, with votes this week in the House and the Senate that reviving a strategy to frame the debate between GOP promises to stay and fight terrorism versus Democrats who want to cut and run and can't agree on a plan. Publicly Democrats insist that GOP playbook won't work this time.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: But the ball on this is in the president's court no matter what congressional Republicans may try to do. That's what the American people think.

BASH: But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is worried about the election year impact of Democrats looking divided on Iraq. He's been meeting behind closed doors with key members of his caucus working feverishly to come up with legislation they can agree on.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And Reid spokesman Jim Manley tells CNN that the Democrats working with Harry Reid are working toward some language on an amendment they will offer this week that would ensure troops are responsibly redeployed, starting this year. That's quite vague, Wolf, and that's not an accident.

They are worried, at least Senator Reid is, that they don't want to give a specific timetable like Senator Kerry is offering because they understand that will give ammunition to Republicans on this issue and they really do want to keep this issue as much as they can about the president and about this being his war, and less about the Democrats and how they're divided and perhaps give Republicans ammunition to say Democrats simply want to get out before it's time.

BLITZER: Democrats still divided on that front as well, Dana, thank you very much -- Dana Bash on the Hill. We also learned today, just in fact in the past hour or so, that congressional Democrats have gotten rid of one source of division. Congressman John Murtha is suspending his bid to become the House majority leader if Democrats were in control of that chamber this fall. The House minority leader Nancy Pelosi announced Murtha's decision. A vocal critic of the president's Iraq policy, Murtha surprised Pelosi. Many other Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, the minority whip, last week by declaring his interest in the No. 2 job in the House. That off the table at least from now.

There was another bombshell here in Washington today. Karl Rove now free of the CIA leak noose around his neck. The deputy White House chief-of-staff got official word yesterday that he will not be charged in special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation. In a statement, Rove's lawyer says, "We believe that the special counsel's decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove's conduct."

Fitzgerald has been investigating whether the White House deliberately leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson to retaliate for her husband's criticism of the Iraq war policy. The Wilsons suggest some other kind of legal action may be taken against Rove. We'll wait and see.

Their lawyer issued a statement today saying this, "The day still may come when Mr. Rove and others are called to account in a court of law for their attacks on the Wilsons." We'll watch this.

Right now Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby remains the only person indicted in the CIA leak probe. His trial is scheduled to start in January.

Karl Rove already had learned about the fate in the CIA leak case, at least his involvement in it when he spoke to New Hampshire Republicans last night. And that may help explain the smile he often had, a smile on his face that he wasn't necessarily referring to when he was tearing into Democratic critics of the Iraq war. He knew what was going on, or as his own fate was concerned. Let's bring in our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, she's watching this story for us -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you have a Republican win in California special elections, the death of an al Qaeda leader, the completion of an Iraqi cabinet and Karl Rove cleared by the special counsel. As one Republican strategist said it, more good news in a week than we've had all year.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY (voice-over): You are looking at the happiest man in America, Karl Rove free of the threat of indictment. The way his lawyer tells it, Rove got the news last night just before he fried Democrats who want out of Iraq now.

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: They may be with you for the first shots, but they are not going to be there for the last tough battles.

CROWLEY: Just like the old days, in your face, uncompromising, swinging for the fences, defining the Republican terms for the '06 elections.

ROVE: We were absolutely right with our coalition partners to remove him from power, we have no excuses to make for it.

CROWLEY: Politics a la Karl mask the reality that an indictment would have cost Rove his job and inflicted irreparable damage to a White House that can't afford any more.

As the president visited Iraq, his closest, longest-serving adviser went through his daily paces and the White House offered up a low-key reaction. "What is remarkable," said the president's communications chief, "is how Karl kept his focus, his energy, and his great attitude during this entire period."

Rove allies beg to differ. No matter how many times the White House claims Karl was going about his business, said one, when you are staring down the barrel of an indictment and millions in lawyer fees, it takes your eye off the ball.

So now Rove is going about his business, which is to say politics, and Republican world breathes easier.

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, RNC: What's so incredible to me is that the folks on the other side of the aisle, people like Howard Dean, people like Harry Reid and others, they owe Karl Rove an apologize.

CROWLEY: Two words, fat chance.

SCHUMER: Someone has to be held accountable for the leak itself, not just for perjury, whether it's Vice President Cheney, Scooter Libby or anyone else in the administration.

CROWLEY: In fact, the investigation goes on and Libby's trial on lying to the feds and the grand jury is scheduled for January.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CROWLEY: But after 20 months of investigation and five grand jury appearances, no bad news for Karl Rove, which is very, very good news for this White House.

BLITZER: So he's going to presumably focus all of his attention now on the midterm elections? Any word that he might be now that he's off the hook, leaving, moving on to do something else?

CROWLEY: No, they have -- remember, one of Karl Rove's main objectives when he and George Bush sort of moved into power in 2000, they wanted a permanent Republican majority. It's very much threatened, as you know, this fall. So this is where Karl's going to focus his attention.

BLITZER: Because earlier, as you remember, before this whole uproar, there was talk he would leave the White House, go to the RNC, go to the into the private sector, make some money, not be burdened by the responsibilities of being a governments employee. You're not hearing anything like that?

CROWLEY: I'm not hearing anything about that pre-election.

BLITZER: Maybe after the election. Candy, thanks very much. Candy Crowley, Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux, John King, they're all part of the best political team on television, CNN, America's campaign headquarters.

Jack Cafferty is off today -- in fact, he's off all of this week. He'll rejoin us here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Monday. Coming up, much more on our top story, the president's surprise visit to Baghdad. What's the political impact? I'll ask Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that's coming up.

Plus a Kennedy in court. Last month Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island crashed his car near the Capitol. Today he made a plea. Plus the first-named storm of this hurricane season slams into Florida. We'll check the damage, tell you where Tropical Storm Alberto is heading next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is a still photo we just got in. That's President Bush he's in the cockpit of Air Force One on the final approach before landing at Baghdad's International Airport earlier today. Clearly very happy. A broad smile on his face. Much more on that story coming up. We are standing by to speak live with Senator Joe Biden. He is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We will get his take on the president's visit to Iraq today. Lots more.

But in the meantime let's check in with Zain Verjee. She is joining us from the CNN global headquarters with a closer look at some other important stories making news -- Zain.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, in Iraq one car bomb about every 24 minutes, on average that's the pace in just over two hours in Kirkuk. There were five altogether. At least 14 people are dead, 35 others have been wounded.

Officials believe insurgents were going after two high-ranking Iraqi police officials. Kirkuk is in northern Iraq and strategically important because of the oil-rich fields that surround it.

It will be a massive show of force, 17,000 strong. Iraq's interior ministry says, at least 70,000 forces will be deployed in the streets of Baghdad starting tomorrow to help secure the capitol. Most of the forces will be Iraqi, but officials say some of them will be among the U.S. and coalition forces. Iraq's prime minister Nuri al- Maliki has vowed to stem the recent spike in violence in Baghdad.

It's an image seared into the minds of many, a young girl in Gaza really inconsolable after she realizes her father died during in an explosion during their picnic. That was on Friday. Now the Israeli military is saying that it has investigated and there's no way its artillery killed innocent Palestinians on the beach that day. The military says the explosion may have been Palestinian a mine or an unexploded shell from a previous attack.

The Israeli military is acknowledging that innocent Palestinians were killed today during an attack on a car in northern Gaza. Officials say they were trying to hit a van full of terrorists carrying Russian made rockets and that Palestinian civilians were accidentally killed.

Back here in the U.S., the worries outpace the realities. Tropical Storm Alberto has not been as rough as expected. It did threaten Florida but only managed to menace the state with heavy rain. Alberto barely remained a tropical storm in the hours after it made land fall in Florida overnight. Tropical storm warning and mandatory evacuations, though, do remain in place.

BLITZER: Zain, thank you for that. Zain Verjee reporting.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy says he's suffering another consequence for his drug-induced car crash on Capitol Hill. The Rhode Island pleaded guilty today to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. Under the plea agreement here in Washington two other charges are being dismissed.

Kennedy was sentenced to court-monitored drugs treatment, a year of probation and a fine. He crashed his car into a security barrier in early May and checked into a drug rehab center at the Mayo Clinic right afterward. Kennedy told reporters today he's looking forward to the next chapter of his life.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PATRICK KENNEDY (D), RHODE ISLAND: I have always said that I wanted to take full responsibility for my actions. Today in court I did just that, I accepted the consequences of my actions. I have cooperated fully with the Capitol Police and with the attorney general's office. They have done a fantastic job in their professional work and I look forward to moving on to the next chapter of my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Kennedy says he's still running for re-election in Rhode Island despite his guilty plea and recent ordeal.

Up next the president make a surprise trip to Baghdad, but back here in Washington, which party is winning the political battle over the war in Iraq. I will ask our senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

And now that the legal cloud is no longer over his head, will Karl Rove make an impact in the midterm elections. Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey standing by for today's strategy session. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's get back to our top story. President Bush's surprise day trip to Baghdad. It gave him a fresh opportunity to highlight progress in Iraq and to highlight some welcome political successes at home. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider is joining us now with more on the trip and the news the president is trying to get out -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: When the Bush administration receives a rare burst of good news, they know what to do with it -- run.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Democrats have been taking the offensive on Iraq.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Iraq is not a matter for future presidents as President Bush has said. It's his war and his responsibility.

SCHNEIDER: President Bush did not get much of a bounce out of the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bush's job rating? Little change in the CBS News poll, down two points since mid May. Not much change in the "USA Today/Gallup poll" either, up two points.

So is the White House defending itself? Not on your life. Because in politics just like in football, the best defense is a good offense. Some rare good news from the special prosecutor that Karl Rove will not be charged. Seize the offensive.

KEN MEHLMAN, REPUBLICAN NAT'L CMTE. CHMN.: People like Howard Dean, Harry Reid and others, they owe Karl Rove an apology.

SCHNEIDER: Finally a new Iraqi government in place. Rove himself seized the offensive against Democratic war critics like Representative John Murtha.

KARL ROVE, DEPUTY W.H. CHIEF OF STAFF: If Murtha had his way, American troops would have been gone by the end of April and we wouldn't have gotten Zarqawi.

SCHNEIDER: President Bush seize the moment by going to Baghdad.

BUSH: I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word.

SCHNEIDER: Democrats are demanding ...

REID: A plan that provides our troops with an exit strategy from this seemingly unending conflict.

SCHNEIDER: Republicans respond ...

ROVE: When it gets tough and when it gets difficult they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running. SCHNEIDER: In March most Americans were ready to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq within a year, now they are not so sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: The Bush administration is trying to turn the Zarqawi killing into something the American public did not immediately see, a political turning point in Iraq.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, part of the best political team on television, thanks. Thanks, Bill. CNN America's campaign headquarters. Also part of that team, our CNN political analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Terry Jeffrey, the editor of "Human Events" on line. They are both here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Donna, listen to what the president said, his message to the new Iraqi leadership was ...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I have expressed our country's desire to work with you, but I appreciate you recognize the fact that the future of your country is in your hands. The decisions you and your cabinet make will be determinate as to whether or not a country succeeds that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think? That sounds like a reasonable message to this new government.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No question.

The president is pleased, like most Americans, that the Iraqi government is now in place. And what I'm sure what the president tried to do today, in addition to sending the message that it's time to pick up the pace of reconstruction, time to pick up the pace of security in the country, he's trying to send a message that it's up to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government now to make progress.

BLITZER: And it's time for the Iraqi government to take charge, to disband those militias, and take...

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... take control of their country.

You won't be surprised to hear the reaction from Senator Chuck Schumer. I want you to listen to this, Terry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: The president today went to Iraq. I'm glad he went to Iraq, get a firsthand look. Now, maybe he will come up finally with a plan that will show us the way out of this quagmire. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, the word quagmire has got a lot of historic connotation, as you well know, referring to Vietnam.

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": Well, you know, what we have seen in the last week, Wolf, proves this is not a quagmire.

And I think the president's trip over there is excellent for, among other reasons, dramatizing the real progress. We went into Iraq. We got of Saddam. We arrested him. An interim government was elected. They wrote a Constitution. The Constitution was approved by the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi people elected a government under that Constitution. Parliament picked a prime minister. He has now put together a complete coalition government that has Sunni, Shia, and Kurds in it. We killed Zarqawi, rolled up a significant element of al Qaeda in Iraq.

And the president is able to go over there and deliver that message. That is huge progress. I -- I think that reasonable people, patriotic people, can see a real chance for the United States to get out of there, leaving behind a stable democratic government.

BRAZILE: You know, May was a month of the most bloodiest month in Iraq in recent memory.

People are still waiting for the electricity to come back on. They are still waiting to see the gas -- you know, they are tired of waiting in line for five hours for a tank of gasoline. So, real progress is when everyday...

BLITZER: Here's...

BRAZILE: ... people can walk down the treat, get ice cream, or a cup of coffee, or some tea, and celebrate...

BLITZER: Here's..

BRAZILE: ... their new democracy.

BLITZER: Here's what John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has often said. You know, we will know that things are moving in the right direction when a soldier, an American -- forget about the president -- but any American diplomat -- there are 2,000 of them at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad right now -- can simply get in a car, leave the Green Zone, drive to downtown Baghdad, go into a coffee shop, have a cup of coffee, or go out to dinner, and not worried about getting killed.

JEFFREY: Well, when that happens, the war is over.

But, actually, if you look at pattern of U.S. casualties in Iraq, all of them are either in Baghdad, in the Sunni Triangle. And all of the Shia areas, for the most part, and the Kurdish areas -- occasionally, there's violence -- but, for the most part, casualties aren't taken there.

What we need now is political progress, as the president described today to Prime Minister Maliki, that brings the Sunnis further into the political fold and further away from the insurgency. I think that's doable. I think we can see that now. I think people should really be optimistic...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Do you think the Democrats are going to come up with a unified Democratic strategy, because there's significant differences, as you well know, Donna?

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, we need the Shias also to root out the corruption and also to stop the militias on their part.

But I think the Democrats believe that this should be a year of significant transition. And, regardless of the various voices, the Democrats believe on their -- believe in their hearts and their mind that, as long as we have a strategy that will bring us to victory, bring our troops home, that's the position of the party.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stick around, because we have a lot more to talk about.

When we come back, we will speak about Karl Rove. Now that he's no longer facing any legal action in the CIA leak case, at least no legal action from the special prosecutor, can he help turn around Republican prospects in the midterm elections? Our "Strategy Session" will resume on that in a moment.

Also, much more on our top story, the president's secret mission to Iraq. Senator Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, he will join us live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. That's coming up shortly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

Karl Rove is probably one of the happiest guys in the United States today. The prosecutor in the CIA leak case decided not to seek an indictment against the top Bush aide.

So, what's the political impact?

Let's get back to our "Strategy Session." Donna Brazile, Terry Jeffrey are here.

Karl Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, issued a statement that said, in part: "We believe that the special counsel's decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove's conduct."

What do you make of this very, very lucky break for Karl Rove?

(LAUGHTER) BRAZILE: Well, I'm sure his family is rejoicing tonight.

But, look, the truth of the matter is, is that the White House still has a cloud over it. Someone did leak her name. Someone went out of their way try to smear Ambassador Wilson and his wife.

So, we don't know the rest of the story. Maybe Fitzgerald will give us the rest of the story, whether it's in the Libby trial next year or perhaps when he ends his investigation.

But, for now, Karl Rove is off the legal hook, but I still believe there is a cloud over the White House.

BLITZER: And we reported earlier that Wilsons, Joe Wilson, his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, are not ruling out perhaps some civil lawsuit down the road.

JEFFREY: Wolf, I think the real political impact of this is, it takes the culture of corruption issue off the table for the Democrats.

They are not going to get any traction on it in the elections. They have William Jefferson to worry about. There was $90,000 found in this guy's freezer. The Associated Press is breaking stories about Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid accepting free boxing tickets to boxing events that Senator John McCain and Senator John Ensign, Republicans, paid for.

We saw Brian Bilbray win in the district that Randy "Duke" Cunningham had to vacate when he pleaded guilty to bribery. The voters there clearly did not generally take it against the Republicans. That issue is off the table.

BLITZER: Is it off the table?

BRAZILE: Oh, absolutely not.

I mean, I can go down a long laundry list. We still have the Abramoff scandal that is -- that is still under way. We have Congressman Ney that is under investigation. Congressman Lewis of California is under investigation.

So, let's not start naming names, because there are a lot more Republicans.

BLITZER: Scooter Libby is actually, to the best of my recollection, still a Republican.

JEFFREY: There's no doubt about it. And the Scooter Libby case is going to go forward. I have no idea whether it's actually going to be concluded before the election.

But, you know, Donna can name certain people, and I will say this. If there is an individual congressman who is somehow tainted by a scandal, he's going to be hurt. But people aren't going to go out there and vote against Republicans because Harry Reid, the boxing guy, is saying there's a culture of corruption that specifically taints only Republicans...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let me read to you what Ken Mehlman, the Republican Party chairman, said on "AMERICAN MORNING" this morning.

He said: "It's pretty clear that he not only did nothing wrong, but he did everything right, in terms of cooperating with this investigation. And what's so incredible to me is that the folks on the other side of the aisle -- people like Howard Dean, people like Harry Reid -- they owe him an apology."

That's Ken Mehlman speaking about a Democratic apology, if you will, to Karl Rove.

BRAZILE: Well, I can tell you -- rest assured that that apology will not be forthcoming.

Look, the Republicans -- the Democrats have a lot to run on. In addition to corruption, they have got incompetence. They have reckless spending. They have the mishandling of the war in Iraq.

Look, Democrats have a lot in their playbook. And just because this culture of corruption has netted maybe one or two Democrats -- and no one said Harry Reid did anything wrong in accepting a boxing ticket, something that he has done over the years as a representative of the state.

JEFFREY: You know, I think, with all due respect, Donna, precisely what the Democrats have as a problem is, they have nothing to run on.

She says run-amok spending. No one believes the Democrats are going to control government spending more than the Republicans are.

BRAZILE: We did under...

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY: The Republicans have done...

BRAZILE: ... under Bill Clinton.

JEFFREY: No. Government grew under Bill Clinton. There was a Republican Congress that reeled it in.

The Democrats -- people don't believe the Democrats are going to do a better job on spending.

BLITZER: All right.

JEFFREY: They don't believe they're going to do a better job on national security. They're not going to win on those issues.

BLITZER: We will see what -- we will see what they believe in November. JEFFREY: True.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: That's when we will all know what the American public believes.

Thanks, guys, very much.

And coming up: It's a tough photo-op to top. So, does the president's surprise trip to Baghdad put the Democrats on the defense when it comes to Iraq? I will ask Senator Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He's standing by live to join us, right here, in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And this: Does Iran have spies in New York City? That story coming up in the next hour.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

When it comes from the president's surprise trip to Iraq today, many Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether the visit actually accomplished anything. But many are not letting up in their criticism of the president's overall strategy as far as Iraq is concerned.

We are joined now by the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden of Delaware.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Hey, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

BIDEN: Happy to be here.

BLITZER: You have got to be a little -- you have got to be a little encouraged by the president's decision to make this trip...

BIDEN: Oh, I am.

BLITZER: ... and meet the Iraqi government eyeball to eyeball.

BIDEN: I am.

I think it's a great opportunity. And I think that the setting- up of their government, coupled with the fact that Zarqawi has been killed, presents an opportunity for the president to change course, set out a plan, just like he changed course in Iran. I think it's good. I'm encouraged, depending on what he said to the Iraqis.

BLITZER: So, you're not like some of those Democrats, who say this is only a publicity stunt? BIDEN: Well, that will remain to be seen. If, come September, things are just as bad as they are now, then, it wasn't much more than that.

But, look, everybody knows three things have to be done in order to have a shot to bring our troops home and leave something stable behind. The first thing is, you have got get the Sunnis to buy in. So, you have got to amend the constitution to give them a piece of the oil revenues.

The second thing you have to do, everybody knows, is, you have got to purge the militia out of the Iraqi army and out of the police force, so the Iraqis have a force that can actually gain the confidence of all the people, and they can restore order.

And the third thing you have got to do, is, you have got to keep the neighbors out of Iraq. And that can only occur if we call an international conference, the major powers, and work out an arrangement where all the neighbors stay out of Iraq. And, I mean, I hope that's what the president is talking to the Iraqi government about.

BLITZER: This new Gallup poll asked the American public: Does the U.S. -- do you believe the U.S. will win in Iraq? In April, only 39 percent said yes. Now it's up to 48 percent.

You have criticized the administration for not having a strategy to win in Iraq.

BIDEN: That's right.

BLITZER: You said that the strategy was to avoid defeat.

BIDEN: That's right.

And that's what it has been so far. That's why I'm hopeful, Wolf. I'm hopeful. Look, the way I think of these things, when people ask me, what would I do, I think of, well, what would I say to president, if the president said, Senator, what should I do now?

And, up to now, all the president has said is, we have a unity government. And it's up to the Iraqis. They will get the job done.

Maybe this trip to Iraq means that he's going and saying, look, folks, you have got to be resolute in bringing down the militias. You have got to be resolute in including the Sunnis, no if, ands, or buts. And we will help you keep the neighbors out.

If he's doing those three things, that's a plan. That's a plan how we can get our forces out by the end of next year and leave a stable government behind.

BLITZER: You don't -- I take it you disagree with Senator John Kerry when he says, just set a deadline by the end of this year to withdraw troops.

BIDEN: Well, I haven't heard John say that. If he did, I do disagree. Setting a date is not a plan.

I understand Senator Kerry's frustration and the frustration of millions of Americans. But that is not a plan. The plan relates to, what are you going to leave behind, as well as, how do you get out?

And as I said -- I said to my colleagues today in a planning meeting on Iraq, I turned and I said, gentlemen, if the president turned and said, what do we do now, what would you say? Leave by 2006? Is that a plan?

What do you do in the meantime? That's what we need. And the president, hopefully, is going to come back and articulate to American public what he said and did with the Iraqi government to give it a chance, not to just stand up, but stand together.

If you don't get them standing together, all the king's horses and all the king's men are not going to stop a civil war, Wolf.

BLITZER: You see any evidence? Do you believe this new Iraqi government will take concrete steps to disband these Shiite militias, whether the Badr organization, or the Mahdi militia, and to -- to unify the country and to disband these various groups?

BIDEN: Put it another way. If they don't -- if they don't -- there will be a civil war. There will be increased sectarian violence.

And, if that's the case, keeping American forces, whether it's 100,000 or 138,000, caught in the middle of that is -- would be a tragedy.

And, so, they better. That's why the president should have an altar call with these guys, should be saying, look, OK, you've got a government. We will support you. But you've got to be resolute along with us in purging the police of the death squads. You've got to be resolute along with us over the next six months in purging the military of the militia. And you got to make it clear you have got to unite, Shia, Kurd and Sunni,. No more militia involvement, and you can be integrated into the military.

If you don't do that, how are they going to establish any resemblance of security in a country? And, if they didn't establish security, how are they going to get the electricity turned on, the sewage working, people back to work, and have any kind of country?

BLITZER: We have time for one final question, unrelated. Karl Rove, off the hook from the special prosecutor, what do you make of this?

BIDEN: Well, I make of it that there weren't facts to make the case against him. And I respect the prosecutor, because, obviously, there was overwhelming pressure for him to do something.

I think the hardest job for a prosecutor is not to indict. And I trust his judgment, that, if he said there weren't the facts here to indict, that he shouldn't. And Karl Rove, as far as I'm concerned, then, is innocent of any wrongdoing.

BLITZER: Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, thanks very much for joining us.

BIDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And, up next: It's primary day in four states. We are going to tell you about some of the more crucial contests in today's "Political Radar." That's coming up.

Plus: the money game -- Rudy Giuliani hopes to raise some serious campaign cash tonight. Does this mean he is serious about a possible White House run?

Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to THE SITUATION ROOM.

On our "Political Radar" today: It's another big primary day in this midterm election year. Voters are casting ballots in five states right now. The marquee race is in Virginia. That's where maybe former Reagan administration Navy Secretary James Webb is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for the U.S. Senate.

Webb left the GOP because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. He's facing and longtime Democratic activist Harris Miller. The winner will challenge Republican Senator George Allen in the fall. Both Democratic candidates are trying to tie Allen to President Bush and his Iraq war policy.

One person who has repeatedly said he has no interest in the race to 2008 is Al Gore. But we will see what the former vice president has to say tonight. Al Gore joins Larry King, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here a CNN -- that interview live. Larry King and Al Gore, watch it tonight.

Coming up, though: Why is actress Daryl Hannah up a tree, literally? And why do the Los Angeles police want to get her down? Zain Verjee will have some answers. She's going to join us next.

And this note -- coming up in our next hour, U.S. border agents accused of taking bribes to let in illegal immigrants, they're in court today. We will get a live update from California.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow.

In Turkey, riot police clash with demonstrators protesting prison conditions. In Afghanistan, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment take a rest. A growing number of troops are moving into the southern part of the country as part of Operation Mountain Thrust.

In Sudan, a world away from the World Cup, boys from a refugees camp entertain themselves with a little soccer.

And, in Montana, a 700-pound grizzly bear named Brutus (ph) on a movie set. His training coaxes a snarl from him using orange-flavored candy for the film "Iron Ridge" -- some of today's "Hot Shots," pictures often worth 1,000 words.

Two other political notes this hour: Senator Hillary Clinton faced some cheers and some boos earlier today for her restrained rhetoric on Iraq. She appeared before a liberal group here in Washington, along with other possible presidential contenders. She encouraged Democrats to hold a difficult conversation about Iraq. Senator John Kerry, by contrast, called the war immoral. The Take Back America event was the latest showcase for Democrats who may be eyeing the White House in 2008.

A top Republican presidential prospect is stepping up his 2008 efforts tonight in New York. The former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, is headlining a big fund-raiser for his political action committee called Solutions America. It's expected to raise at least a half-a-million dollars for Republican candidates in this election year. And it's expected to further raise Giuliani's political profile, as he ponders a race for the White House.

Let's check back with Zain at the CNN Global Headquarters for a quick look at some other important stories -- Zain.

VERJEE: Wolf, seven hours of surgery, multiple facial fractures, yet, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is said to be doing OK. Doctors say, his brain, spine, chest and stomach appear to be unharmed, and that he has no other confirmed injuries.

Just yesterday, Roethlisberger was involved in a motorcycle accident in downtown Pittsburgh. Police say the 24-year-old wasn't wearing a helmet at the time.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve says most American families are doing a good job managing their finances. Ben Bernanke says families appear to have their debt problems under control and that delinquency rates on consumer and homes loans are low. Yet, Bernanke also acknowledges the final challenges that many low-income families face.

And from playing a mermaid to hugging a tree, today, actress Daryl Hannah drew attention with actions on land. She has just been brought down from a tree in Los Angeles County, where she parked herself in protest. The tree is in a 14-acre urban community garden. Hannah and others are protesting a plan to clear the garden to make way for a warehouse -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, thanks very much. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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