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CNN NEWSROOM

Girl Raped, Boys Charged; Democrats Battle Democrats on Health Reform; Millions of Americans Getting a Raise Today; Obama Addresses White House Press Corps About Gates' Arrest

Aired July 24, 2009 - 14:00   ET

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


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we're moving ahead at the top of the hour right now. It's a shocking crime scene, all the more shocking because of the age of the alleged victim and the age of the suspects. We're pushing forward on a story we first brought you yesterday. A 14-year-old boy and three younger boys accused of gang -- gang raping, rather, an eight-year-old girl in an empty shed near a Phoenix apartment building. All five are Liberian refugees.

Police call it one of the most horrific crimes that they've seen. Perhaps even more disturbing, the fallout. Police took the girl away from her family, saying relatives blamed her for the rape.

Now, the three younger boys have been charged as juveniles, but the 14-year-old, he's being charged as an adult. But this story's far from over. Now, friends and relatives of the older boy say that prosecutors are going way too far. Here's Kristine Harrington from Phoenix affiliate KTVK.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I beg you, I want to see my son. I want to see my son. My son.

KRISTINE HARRINGTON, KTVK CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A mother heartbroken. Her 14-year-old son Steven Tuopeh behind bars, charged with kidnapping and sexual assault, making his first appearance in court where prosecutors say he not only participated in, but initiated the sexual assault of an 8-year-old girl.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The defendant was the person who gathered people together, bribed the other individual who actually committed the majority of the assault, and held the victim down while she was sexually assaulted.

HARRINGTON: The other three boys, nine, 10, and 13 years old, are being charged as juveniles. This mom doesn't understand why her son is being tried as an adult, unwilling to believe the charges against him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to see my son. For a day, I've never seen my son.

HARRINGTON: Tuopeh and his family are Liberian refugees. They've only been here in the United States since 2005, and his family worries... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whether he did it or not, he does not understand the people that he's talking to.

HARRINGTON: In court, this teenage boy was a man of few words, opting not to speak when asked if he had anything to say regarding his being held on no bond.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He does not speak English very well, and he does not understand English very well. He did not go to school. He started going to school when he came to the United States. And so, we deduced that he cannot really understand what is going on right now. And so everything that is being said to him, he has no choice but just to accept it even though he did not understand.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: All right. Just a follow-up to that.

We did talk to sources close to the investigation, sources that actually spoke with this young boy. And we are being told that he does speak English, so we want to make that clear.

Meanwhile, this story is sending shock waves around the world, as you can imagine, especially to Liberia, where the alleged victim and attackers are originally from. The president of that African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has always been a friend to our news program. And she is actually going to call in and join us on the phone in just a minute.

But also joining us from Washington, the Liberian ambassador to the U.S., Milton Barnes.

Ambassador, let's go ahead and start with you while we wait for Madam President.

You know, do you believe that what we're seeing here originates from your country, a country where, you know, often the woman is blamed for rape, shamed for rape? And, as you and I well know, rape was used as a tool during the Civil War and still is on many levels.

MILTON BARNES, LIBERIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well, there is quite a bit of trauma involved all around. You are right, rape was used as a weapon of war during our crisis, and so our hearts go out to the young victim, the 8-year-old child. And our primary concern is for her well-being and her welfare. We have been in touch with the authorities in Phoenix, Arizona, particularly the police department, and so far, we are confident that they will use every resource within their power to ensure that things are done in a very quick, expeditious, fair, and most importantly, sensitive manner, particularly given the age of this child.

PHILLIPS: It's heartbreaking, an 8-year-old child being blamed (sic) for rape.

Ambassador Barnes, stay with me, please. I do understand we do have President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, on the phone with us now.

Madam President, I know that you are well aware of the rape case that has happened here in the United States. What do you have to say about what you have heard with regard to these young Liberian boys allegedly gang-raping this 8-year-old Liberian girl?

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF, LIBERIAN PRESIDENT: Let me say that we are deeply distressed at this behavior on the part of our young Liberians and very saddened at this 8-year-old child who has been so victimized. We appeal to the parents to protect their children, protect their child, and make sure that those who have infringed upon her in this manner are made to abide by the laws of the United States in this regard.

Let me say very clearly that rape is a problem in Liberia also. This is why we have made rape a non-bailable (ph) offense. It is a criminal offense. There is a strong law regarding that. You cannot even get bail.

So, those parents should know that things have changed in Liberia. No longer do we tolerate this. And this is not a question of shame on the family, it's a question of an assault on a young child. And that cannot be tolerated.

PHILLIPS: And Madam President, that's what's so heart-wrenching about this case, is it's this battle with culture and with crime. And we don't know why these boys committed this crime.

And we want to ask that question -- did they learn this type of behavior in Liberia, where rape is used as a tool during wartime, and where the young women are blamed for rape in that country? We hope to answer that question.

But what would be your message to the family of this 8-year-old girl that has been interviewed on camera saying, we're shamed by this, it's her fault, we don't want her back? What would you say to that family?

SIRLEAF: I think that family is wrong. They should help that child who has been traumatized, and they should make sure that they work with the U.S. law authorities to see what can be done about the other young boys who have committed this offense.

Not only should they abide by the law, but they too need serious counseling, because clearly they are doing something that is no longer acceptable in our society here. It's a problem, but it is a crime, and people bear the brunt of the penalty for such crimes.

They should be working with the authorities on this. I will ask Ambassador Barnes to work with the family to let them know what needs to be done, and to work with the legal authorities in Phoenix to make sure that this matter is handled, recognizing that we do not condone this and we must ensure the protection of that 8-year-old.

PHILLIPS: Ambassador Barnes, while we have Madam President on the line, can you tell us here at CNN and to our viewers and to Madam President that you will personally get involved in making sure this 8- year-old girl, whether it's with her family or another family, is cared for, loved, and embraced, and that these young boys will be taught that this is not permissible here in the U.S. and that there has to be an understanding that if they're going to live here and if they are found guilty of this crime, that it's wrong?

BARNES: Absolutely. Absolutely. Our primary concern right now is this child.

I personally am concerned about her well-being and her welfare. We have been in touch with the authorities in Phoenix, and we do intend to work with the authorities and the families to make sure that she's safe, she's protected, and there is certain sensitivity exercised towards her considering that she is a child and doesn't know any better.

She certainly should not be blamed. She is only an 8-year-old kid, a baby, and doesn't know any better. And we will work with the authorities. We will, of course, also try to be in touch with the families of the perpetrators, the young boys, and also sure that they do get the appropriate counseling, but they do understand that what they have done is wrong and they will have to pay the penalty for what they have done.

PHILLIPS: Madam President, Steven Tuopeh, the 14-year-old boy that is being charged with rape, he is being charged as an adult.

Do you support that?

SIRLEAF: If that's what the laws of the states dictate, then we'll have to follow the law. I do hope, however, that there will be counseling introduced into whatever happens.

These are also young people who clearly have had their value systems wrong. It does come from the practices of war. Many of them also have trauma from the war and are carrying on some of the same malpractices that we practiced upon them during the war. They have to pay the penalty, but we also want to make sure that they are counseled so that whenever they have already done time, or whatever, it is in accordance with the law that they, too, will have an opportunity to change and become useful citizens, not only in the United States, but when they return home.

PHILLIPS: Madam President, before I let you go, your message, please, to the 8-year-old girl, the young rape victim, and also to her family. What do you say to them?

SIRLEAF: Just say to them that we are so saddened. We are so sorry about that.

We just want to make sure that the parents take care of that child. And if they don't, reach out to others, facilitated by our ambassador, to make sure she is placed in a situation where she can be administered to, that she can be loved and cared, and call upon the parents to do right by that child. We cannot allow her life to be so interrupted by this incident and take away the future that is so bright for her. So, we will be working with her through our ambassador to make sure that not only is she attended to, but that she can then continue in her education, and we can make sure that this particular incident is removed from her.

So, thank you all for following this and bringing attention to it. We will continue to work with the families and make sure that child is safe and protected.

PHILLIPS: And Madam President, we thank you. You have truly been a trailblazer there in Liberia, standing up for the rights of women, and have been an incredible asset, obviously, to our news coverage on a number of times.

Madam President, thank you so much.

And Ambassador Milton Nathaniel Barnes, we call on you, too, and look to you to get involved in this case and keep us updated. We would like to talk to you again as we find more resolution not only for this family, this little girl, but for all the Liberian refugees here in this country, in particular the focus of Phoenix, Arizona, right now.

May we do a follow-up with you?

BARNES: Thank you very much. You're most welcome. I'll be available.

PHILLIPS: OK. We'll be in contact.

Ambassador, thank you.

Well, an arrest in a college town becomes an issue in the nation's capital. Three men drawn into a controversy that just keeps getting bigger. New details now from the policeman and reaction from the professor's camp.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLIPS: Now to Capitol Hill, where the battle over health care reform is becoming a family feud. The family being Democrats. The feud, pitting so-called Blue Dogs against their own leaders, especially in the House.

Republicans are pretty much united on the need to slow down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NATHAN DEAL (D), GEORGIA: Most of us believe that the decision of major reform as to how Americans get their health care deserves at least as much time and deliberation as it would take to select a puppy to reside in the White House. It took the president six months to decide how long and which puppy he was going to have. And to expect Congress to do something on major health care reform in six days is totally irresponsible.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PHILLIPS: Well, Brianna Keilar is watching all this up close for us.

Brianna, what's the latest?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, this standoff, Democrats versus Democrats, well, I've got to tell you, it is starting to reach a fever pitch here. A key Democrat, Henry Waxman -- he is the chairman of the Energy and Congress Committee -- has said that if he can't reach agreement with some of these conservative Democrats, these Blue Dogs, in his committee, there is consideration that Democratic leaders may just scrap the whole committee process and take the health care reform bill as it is to the House floor for a vote. This is a sign the Democratic leaders are essentially considering that if they can't get these Blue Dogs on board, well, they may just bypass them.

And Kyra, we have talked about this. For their part, the Blue Dogs have concerns about basically the cost of the health care reform bill, how it's going to be paid for. And there is quite a few of them. There's 52 Blue Dog Democrats in the House.

My colleague, Dana Bash, and our producer, Deirdre Walsh, just spoke with Mike Ross, the head of the Blue Dogs, a short time ago, and he told them he has enough votes to stop this bill on the House floor if it comes to a vote. So you can see this is really heating up here.

PHILLIPS: All right. And they're taking their fight to the House floor with a visual aid. What is it?

KEILAR: Yes, this is -- Republicans have really been capitalizing on the fact that there is all of this infighting. And so they are hitting really hard and this, and they're hitting the Democrats plan pretty hard. And yes, they're doing it with a visual aid that I've got right here. I want to show this to you.

It's kind of scary looking. And I think that's really the point here.

This is a flow chart that Republicans have put together of the Democrats' health plan. And they are saying that between you, the patient, and your doctor, there is all of this red tape, basically, that you will have to go through in order to get your health care.

Now, for their part, Democrats say this is not true. They say this is exaggerated. They say what they are really doing, Kyra, is streamlining the process to make it easier for you to get health care, to make it -- so you don't have to go through basically the tape that you would have to go through with a health insurance company.

And they are floating -- Democratic aides are floating their own version of what they say is the House Republican plan, if we can show you that. It is a flow chart in itself with a lot of question marks, if we have that. I'm waiting to see if we can pull it up.

There it is.

And you can see here, this is tongue-in-cheek. The House Republicans at this point do not have a bill. We don't know when it's going to come out. And so, there's a bit of a feud overflow charts, if you will, going on between House Republicans and Democrats -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Brianna Keilar, thank you so much.

You've just -- you know what? You know what I was thinking to myself? Let's see, we've got the Magic Wall, the touch screen. Now Wolf Blitzer has the chalk board. And you, you've got the schematic from hell on Capitol Hill.

KEILAR: It's all right.

PHILLIPS: All right. Good luck, Brianna.

KEILAR: Thanks.

PHILLIPS: We'll keep trying to figure it all out.

Poor Brianna.

Well, job seekers trying to corner the market passing out resumes on the side of the road. How did it work for them? They'll give us their "30 Second Pitch."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLIPS: Millions of Americans are getting a raise today. It's the final stage of a three-step increase in the federal minimum wage passed by Congress two years ago. But can the economy handle it now?

Alison Kosik has been breaking it down for us from New York.

Hi, Alison.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kyra.

You know, there's a lot of debate about how this is going to impact the economy. The federal minimum wage rises 70 cents today to $7.25 an hour from $6.55.

For a full-time worker, that comes to a little more than $15,000 a year. Workers in 29 states will get the raise. In 21 other states, workers aren't going to feel it because those states already pay more than $7.25 an hour. The Economic Policy Institute is estimating it will mean higher wages for about 4.5 million people -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Well, unemployment is at 9.5 percent. It's a 26-year high. So, how does raising the minimum wage affect the job market?

KOSIK: Well, exactly. And some economists are worried this could bring more job cuts. You know, companies are weighing every position these days. And when workers get too expensive, they may let some people go, or at least cut their hours. And this could be especially true in the retail and restaurant businesses. Both rely heavily on low-wage workers.

It's also possible businesses could pass the higher cost on to consumers. But advocates say workers need a higher minimum wage now more than ever. And some analysts say it can even boost the economy by getting more money into the pockets of people who will spend it rather than save it.

So, what do you think? We're getting lots of comments on CNNMoney.com.

James in Atlanta writes, "I work in fast food right now. The increase in the minimum wage will raise my salary, but it is far from a living wage."

Paul in L.A. writes to us saying that, "Raising the minimum wage is just self-taxation through inflation on everyone. There is no free lunch. Minimum wage should be abolished."

Kyra, you can always count on strong opinions on both sides of this issue.

Back to you.

PHILLIPS: All right, Alison. Thanks.

Well, if you can't get a job, maybe you should hit the road. Literally.

A couple of recent college grads took their job search to the corner of 8th and Vine in Westmont, New Jersey. They wore a sign saying, "Need Job, Take Resume."

Passing motorists gave them waves, a few other nice gestures and not so nice gestures. But they are hoping that one of them gives them a job.

We're doing our part to help A.J. O'Malley and Sean Christman with their quest for employment. They're today's "30 Second Pitch."

Hey, guys.

SEAN CHRISTMAN, JOB SEEKER: Hey, Kyra. How are you doing?

A.J. O'MALLEY, JOB SEEKER: How are you doing?

PHILLIPS: Good. Very good. Good to see you.

So, I'm curious, whose idea was this, A.J. or Sean?

This was actually my uncle's friends idea. He did this about 20 years ago. His name is Jeff Lee (ph). PHILLIPS: OK.

He did this about 20 years ago. He's actually in the same profession he was in at the same time.

PHILLIPS: So did it work for him, Sean?

CHRISTMAN: It actually did, yes. He's in medical sales now. He's out in San Francisco doing real well.

PHILLIPS: And it happened by standing on the street corner. Someone took his resume and the rest is history?

CHRISTMAN: The rest is history.

O'MALLEY: Yes.

PHILLIPS: So, A.J., did you think Sean was nuts when he suggested this?

O'MALLEY: No, never. I have known him too long.

PHILLIPS: OK. So you guys are long-time buddies then. Since kids?

CHRISTMAN: Yes.

O'MALLEY: Yes.

CHRISTMAN: Grade school.

PHILLIPS: Since grade school. I love it.

OK. I just -- you know, I'm just surprised.

A.J., you went to Rutgers.

Sean, La Salle.

I mean, no alumni or career counselors? Nobody has helped you with a job?

CHRISTMAN: I mean, we have reached out to all kinds of alumni, both at La Salle and Rutgers. And we've been going through career services. They have been very accommodating, but we just felt like where we wanted to know, we needed to actually go out and do it ourselves. So that's what we are up to.

PHILLIPS: And A.J., what kind of response have you gotten?

O'MALLEY: I mean, we've gotten everything from obscene gestures, to, "You know what? You guys are going far in life." So, it's actually been quite rewarding, the different stuff we've heard from probably 99 percent of the drivers.

PHILLIPS: OK, A.J. Have you gotten any bites for what you want to do?

O'MALLEY: Yes. Actually, I have a couple of offers right now. Actually, none of them happened to come from this particular event, but this event helped fuel, I guess, the interest in myself. So, I mean, we'll see from there.

PHILLIPS: OK. That's good.

What about you, Sean?

CHRISTMAN: It's been a whirlwind the past couple of days, just trying to get back to people through e-mails and phone calls. But yes, we've gotten a lot of feedback just from what we've been doing. And I've got a couple prospects out there, so it's looking pretty good right now.

PHILLIPS: All right. Well, let's get down to business.

A.J., why don't we start with you? Are you ready for your 30 second pitch?

O'MALLEY: Yes. You know what? I think I am. I think I'm ready.

PHILLIPS: What do you mean, you think you're ready?

O'MALLEY: Well, I practiced a little. I'm not going to lie. There was a little practice involved.

PHILLIPS: All right. Well, here we go. We're going to start the clock, so get ready and go ahead and start right now.

Go ahead, A.J.

O'MALLEY: Hello, my name is A.J. O'Malley. I'm a recent graduate. I graduated May 2009 from the Rutgers University School of Business.

I was a three-year captain of a very successful men's soccer program. And while maintaining a 3.56 GPA.

During my stint at Rutgers, I had two internships with an asset management firm. I'm a very determined and outgoing individual looking for a career in the financial sector of the business world.

I mean, initially, I'm looking for somewhere that I can sink my teeth into and show my dedicated nature. And I'm looking to advance my career...

(BELL RINGING)

O'MALLEY: Oh!

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIPS: A.J., you're a piece of work. OK. Sean...

O'MALLEY: So close.

PHILLIPS: So close. Yes, but you got it. You got all the important stuff in there.

And A.J., you're a soccer player. You know, Beckham could use some consulting. Maybe you could make some money there. He has got plenty.

CHRISTMAN: That's for sure.

O'MALLEY: Yes. Very true. Very true.

PHILLIPS: OK, Sean. Are you ready for your 30 second pitch?

CHRISTMAN: Yes, I am. It will be tough to follow that, but I think I'm ready to go.

PHILLIPS: Yes, see if you can beat your best friend from childhood.

CHRISTMAN: We'll try. We'll try.

PHILLIPS: All right. Here we go. Start. Go ahead, Sean.

CHRISTMAN: Good afternoon, America.

My name is Sean Christman. I recently graduated cum laude from La Salle University with a bachelor's degree in finance.

Through an internship and several years of service, I have prepared myself to thrive in the professional environment. I'm looking to advance my career aspirations with a challenging full-time position that expands my knowledge in both finance and accounting. As a passionate and driven individual, I'm confident that I will make a positive impact on a willing firm.

PHILLIPS: Oh, look at that. Three seconds. Anything else?

CHRISTMAN: No. Just a very inspiring individual, punctual. You name it, I've got it.

PHILLIPS: Yes, you both do.

A.J. O'Malley, Rutgers grad there in finance. John Christman, La Salle graduate.

CHRISTMAN: And just...

PHILLIPS: Yes?

CHRISTMAN: One more thing.

PHILLIPS: Oh, sure. CHRISTMAN: I'm actually going to be in Washington, D.C., tomorrow afternoon.

So, President Obama, if you would like to meet for lunch or something, then we can meet up and discuss any possible opportunities you may have in the White House.

PHILLIPS: A.J.?

O'MALLEY: Yes. I think I got a phone call from Obama now. So, I might have to take that.

PHILLIPS: I love it. A little friendly competition among the two.

You saw their e-mails.

A.J., Sean, great job, guys. Thank you so much.

CHRISTMAN: Thank you. Thanks, Kyra.

O'MALLEY: Thanks, Kyra.

CHRISTMAN: Have a great one.

PHILLIPS: Oh, you too. That was a highlight, I must say.

CHRISTMAN: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Now, A.J. and Sean's e-mail addresses and their pitches are on our blog, CNN.com/Kyra.

If you want to be part of the pitch, you can also reach out to us there or tweet me at KyraCNN.

Meanwhile, A.J., Sean, you couldn't find two better employees there. Somebody in finance give them a call or an e-mail.

Well, pounding the pavement for a cause close to her heart. How a knock on this door by this breast cancer survivor could save a life.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(WEATHER REPORT)

PHILLIPS: Well, time to reveal our hero of the week.

As the nation debates health care reform, we focus on the uninsured and a horrific killer, breast cancer. Uninsured women are less likely to get annual mammograms, and therefore are at greater risk. Lack of insurance is also one of the reasons black women are 37 percent more likely than whites to die from the disease.

This week's hero is fighting to better those odds for all women, and she's doing it by hitting the streets.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Heroes.

ANDREA IVORY, CNN HERO: In 2004, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Initially, there's shock, but I realized how blessed I was to have health insurance. It made me think about all the women who didn't have health insurance. I wanted to make a differences in their lives.

I'm Andrea Ivory. I am fighting breast cancer in south Florida one household at a time. The Florida Breast Health Initiative is an outreach organization, targeting working class people. We are going to make a difference and save some lives. We have a "take it to the streets" approach.

We feel like little pixies spreading breast cancer awareness. We target women 35 years or older and make appointments on the spot for free mammograms.

(on camera): I look forward to seeing you. I'll be there.

(voice-over): Bringing the mobile mammography vans into the neighborhood is one of the most important facets of the work we do. We provide a service that is so needed. I know I am saving lives.

(on-camera): You said it was free. So come right over and get it.

Is the lady of the house at home?

We are giving free mammograms on the 25th.

Thank you so much.

(voice-over): I was saved from breast cancer to serve other women. Every time I knock on the door, it is another opportunity to save a life.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIPS: You can find out more about Andrea's work and nominate a CNN Hero of your own on our Web site at CNN.com/heroes. Next week is your last chance to tell us about your hero. Nominations close August 1. If you know a hero, go to CNN.com/heroes right now.

Each guy says he was calm. It was the other guy acting crazy. (INAUDIBLE) Two very different versions of what went down. Provocative new details from the Cambridge cop and rebuttal from the professor's camp.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PHILLIPS: We don't usually see this, but the president holding the White House briefing today. No Robert Gibbs. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ...over the last day and a half, obviously, there is all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with Professor Gates and the police department there.

I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved, and I have to tell you that as I said yesterday, my impression of him that he was an outstanding police officer and a good man. That was confirmed in the phone conversation. I told him that.

And I -- because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. I could have calibrated those words differently. I told this to Sergeant Crowley.

I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well. My sense is, you have got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved and the way they would have liked it to be resolved. The fact that it has garnered so much attention, I think, is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America.

So, to the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate. What I would like to do then is to make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts, but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.

And even when you've got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African-American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding. My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment, where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities. And that, instead of pointing accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity.

Lord knows, we need it right now, because over the last two days, as we've discussed this issue, I don't know if you've noticed but nobody has been paying much attention to health care. I will not use this time to spend more words on health care, although I can't guarantee that that will be true next week. But I just wanted to emphasize that -- one last point I guess I would make. There are some who say that as president, I shouldn't have stepped into this at all, because it's a local issue. I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with. The fact that this has become such a big issue, I think, is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.

Whether I were black or while, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive as opposed to negative understandings about the issue is part of my portfolio. At the end of the conversation, there was discussion about -- my conversation with Sergeant Crowley, there was discussion about he and I and Professor Gates having a beer here in the White House. We don't know if that is scheduled yet. But we may put that together.

He also did say -- he wanted to find out if there was a way of getting the press off his lawn. I informed him that I can't get the press off my lawn. He pointed out that my lawn is bigger than his lawn, but if anybody has any connections to the Boston press as well as national press, Sergeant Crowley would be happy for you to stop trampling his grass. All right? Thank you, guys.

PHILLIPS: That is just -- do we want to listen to Gibbs or should we focus on the fact that -- we do? Do we want to listen to Gibbs? OK.

We are going to get back to the fact that the president held truly a unique moment there, but let's listen to Gibbs and see what he says.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ...handed me my folder and said the week ahead is in the front pocket. I said "I have a sneaking suspicion we will get to that toward the end." He has not spoken to Professor Gates.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did anybody from the White House reach out to Mr. Gates to let him know that Mr. Obama was going to do this?

GIBBS: No.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Was there any form of an apology from the president?

GIBBS: I think the president characterized most of their conversation as something that he wanted to have with the officer. I will keep it that way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How real was this offer? He said a beer. That's one thing you just throw out there, but is it like...

GIBBS: I think it was the suggestion of the sergeant. I think the president in their five-minute phone conversation...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is he expecting the sergeant to come to the White House? Is he inviting the sergeant to come to the White House?

(CROSSTALK) UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A five-minute conversation.

GIBBS: In about a five-minute conversation, I have to check my notes, I think it was Sergeant Crowley's suggestion about the beer. I think the president thought it was a good idea.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is he serious?

GIBBS: He said he doesn't know if is scheduled, but they will work on it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So, is he inviting the sergeant to the White House?

GIBBS: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. You don't have to talk into the microphone. We all heard your question.

Again, I think, as the president said, and I think that's why the invitation is a real invitation, is that a moment like this can be used to teach us and be used to have a communication and a dialogue that's constructive outside of the moment.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When did the president decide to make this phone call, and was it any particular event or conversation that prompted him to do that?

GIBBS: None that I'm aware of. Sometime earlier, earlier today, but I don't know the exact time that he decided. The call happened. It lasted about five minutes. It was, let's see, my watch is set ahead. So it was probably around just recently, 2:15, 2:20.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (OFF-MIKE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know if he planned to speak with Professor Gates?

GIBBS: I don't know, but I will check on that when we're done.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is significant that the president had to come back and address a question from a press conference because of race. What kind of communiques or letters or calls have you gotten here to the White House, and what kind of outpouring have you gotten for the community for the president to make this decision. And did police organizations from around the country help to make this decision, for him to come out?

GIBBS: I was on the road yesterday, April. So, I don't know what engagement the White House had yesterday with groups or individuals. I think I did see on the correspondence chart that we get that health care was the biggest topic again yesterday in terms of comments and concerns. That's all the information I have on that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A follow-up also. Since he acknowledges that race is still an issue and there are sensitivities still about race, is he thinking about possibly doing something along the lines of what Bill Clinton did, possibly having a conversation on race? GIBBS: I think in many ways, the question, the answer, the events, I think we are having that conversation. I don't think it is a separate initiative, I don't think it is an announcement. I think the president would say that these are important issues that play out in our daily lives and will and should be discussed in our daily lives.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: From listening to him, it sure sounded like he had made an apology to the officer. Wouldn't it be fair to characterize it as that?

GIBBS: I think he -- Steve, I think he understood that as he told you all, that his words contributed to this being ratcheted up. I think there is a reason that the news media is on the sergeant's lawn. I think he wanted to make sure that -- to let him know that that word choice was not one that he thought was probably in hindsight the best choice.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Were you in the room? Did you hear him issue an apology? We are not asking...

GIBBS: You don't have to parse it. You can quote me and quote him.

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: I feel comfortable with the answer I just gave, Steve.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you hear him make an apology?

GIBBS: I am not going to get -- if the president doesn't want to characterize the conversation he is having with you all, I am not going to get ahead of him.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Robert, prior to the president going out for that press conference, obviously, you sit down, you go over the questions that are going to be asked for the evening, and you rehearse answers or discuss how he will answer a question. Did this come up as part of the preparations, the Gates matter, and if so, was the word choice of "stupidly," was that ever...

GIBBS: I am not going to get into the process of all this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But what was discussed about that question when that came up?

GIBBS: I am not going to get into that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When the president used those words, what's your opinion?

GIBBS: My opinion on that doesn't matter.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (OFF-MIKE) ...will there be a meeting here at the White House? GIBBS: I think the president hopes so. I think the president hopes that, again, this is a moment that can be used to discuss these issues.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And when do you expect him to reach out to Mr. Gates?

GIBBS: I said I would check on that. I don't know the answer.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Robert, what part of his statement would he take back, anything other than the word stupidly?

GIBBS: Again, you just heard from the president. I would quote him liberally. I don't want to get into parsing here. Jonathan?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: One quick thing. You said that because of our history, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues. I want to make sure he is referring -- is he referring to Mr.Gates and his response, or is he referring to the president's own response to the issue and to the question?

GIBBS: I think he is talking about at large. I think he's talking about -- I don't think there's -- I know that statement does not -- he is not speaking about an individual situation. He is talking about the reason that he came to work on an issue like this in the state Senate was because of historical attention, but that's not an individual thing. That's writ-large (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That's what I mean. When he asked the question, he could have dodged it. He jumped into it. I wonder if he is saying that is because of the sensitivity.

GIBBS: I think he addressed that up here in saying that he has heard those that said maybe because it was a local issue, it's something that he should have or could have steered around. I think he was clear on that here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Robert, I have two questions. One, as far as health care issues are concerned, most of the Indian-Americans, physicians and doctors in this country, they support...

PHILLIPS: Okay. Let's take you back to the most remarkable part of this news conference. It happened just about five minutes ago. Unexpectedly, the president of the United States, surprising reporters and saying, you know, before Robert Gibbs begins, I need to say something. Without going any further, let's just take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I actually just had a conversation with Sergeant Jim Crowley, the officer involved, and I have to tell you that as I said yesterday, my impression of him that he was an outstanding police officer and a good man. That was confirmed in the phone conversation. I told him that.

And I -- because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically. I could have calibrated those words differently. I told this to Sergeant Crowley.

I continue to believe, based on what I have heard, there was an overreaction in pulling Professor Gates out of his home to the station. I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: I think this was what everybody was waiting for, not only the Cambridge Police Department but Professor Skip Gates, including journalists across the country. This became such a big story.

We want to talk more about that now with T.J Holmes. Also at the White House, Suzanne Malveaux and Ed Henry also in Washington. The president actually went on to say, "look, if anything, this whole entire story goes to show that issues of race are still sensitive in America. African-Americans are very sensitive to these issues. Race is a troubling aspect in our society. This is a teachable moment. We should all listen to each other, focus on improving relationships between minorities and police officers. If anything, we need more unity right now. Lord knows, we need it."

So, T.J., your sitting right here next to me. I think you and I both, are getting ready to talk about Professor Gates at 3:00 that you just had an interview with. And then all of a sudden, the president steps out and you and I both went, "Finally."

T.J. HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is what was needed. The past couple of days, it has been amazing to see this reach a fever pitch. Every black man in this country, prominent or otherwise, has been talking about some experience he has had with the police. These wounds are still there. It is bringing up a bunch of old wounds and memories everybody's been talking about. It speaks volumes that the president had to step out and calm everybody down, because that is what has been happening.

I spoke to Charles Ogletree, that's who you are talking about. He is also a fellow professor at Harvard and the attorney representing Professor Gates. He, too, seems like he was trying to back this thing down a bit as well. I was asking him about what -- this whole thing about race and racial profiling.

He said this is not about race. This is about bad judgment on the part of the police officer. I have got one clip I am going to let you listen to. I spoke to him just a little bit ago. He is trying to back it down. See if you can tell as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OGLETREE: He says, why are you doing this, is it because I am a black man and you are a white police officer? HOLMES (off camera): Was he saying it as calmly as you are saying it to me?

OGLETREE: Well, the recordings will show. You can imagine he is feeling this sense of indignity that people feel every day. It has nothing to do with race. There are people that feel powerless when they have done everything they can legally do to protect themselves and find what Professor Gates found, in a moment, you have been arrested.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: And again, he said there in the end, it is not just about race. It is about anybody in it country who has ever felt powerless. You do everything you are supposed to do as a citizen, but still you find yourself being arrested. He said, this is not about race. He wanted to get at that.

But at the same time, next breath, he could also say, the reason race came into it was when the phone call was made and she said, "I'm looking at two black guys breaking into a place." That's when it became about race. And he says that puts something into the minds of the police officers, he believes. Still, trying to give sergeant Crowley the benefit of the doubt and saying we don't know yet if it is about racial profiling. Still up in the air that that's a possibility. Need some more investigation.

PHILLIPS: And if you read the police report, the issue of race was brought up in the police report. You asked the question, the fact that Professor Gates said, "Is it because I'm a black man and you are a white cop," It just added fuel to the fire.

Suzanne Malveaux, you were in the room when the president stepped out to the mike instead of Robert Gibbs. And you and I jokingly in your live shot -- it's like, okay. And then Don Lemon and I were talking about it. And it was like, hmm? Was the president listening to us?

We were saying, you have really intelligence folks here. You've got the leader of the free world, who is African-American. You have got Professor Skip Gates, who is renowned on this issue and an academic and a successful African-American in this country. And then you have a police sergeant with an incredible reputation who taught about racial profiling to other officers -- totally respected in the community.

Don Lemon was telling me the black officers in the room had tears in their eyes because they felt their buddy was getting the shaft here in all this. What an opportunity, like the president said, to have a teachable moment. And maybe this issue can be put to rest and the issue of race relations can be talked about in a much more intelligent way.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We heard the president joking about having all of them together for a beer at the White House. You had just joked about that before. I want to tell you about what happened this morning, what this kind of felt like from the White House. There was a gaggle we had off camera, on the record, a briefing with Robert Gibbs in his office earlier this morning, and we peppered him with questions about this. Whether or not the president regretted getting involved with this, whether or not he was going to reach out to Professor Gates, whether or not he was going to apologize to Sergeant Crowley, any of these things. And Robert Gibbs consistently said, no, no, no, that he is not going to do any of those things, that the matter was essentially closed, that he felt he addressed this fully and completely.

Fast forward to five hours later, and we've got the president walking into the briefing room. Clearly, they have been watching what has been happening. They have been hearing the dialogue. They know that many, many people have been talking about this. It really is a touchstone for so many people that he needed to come out and address this in a fuller manner.

Reading the tea leaves, Kyra. We had a two-minute warning. I heard an anxiousness, a nervousness from one of the White House press folks saying, two-minute warning, two-minute warning, kind of emphatically. And I kind of thought in the back of my mind, maybe something is going on. I thought, where is the president right now? Where is he?

Sure enough, he walked out just minutes later to address this more fully. So, in one way, it is shocking and surprising. In another way, it isn't. They are watching and listening to what the country is talking about, and people have been talking about this. It was clear that the president -- unintentionally wading into this, muddied the waters a bit and perhaps brought some negative attention to himself and was not necessarily helping the debate.

You will note, too, Kyra, that he did say that this was something that was taking away from the health care debate. This is something that he has been wanting to talk about health care and getting that message across. That was the other part of it. This is a huge distraction for him during this time when he is trying to move the ball forward. So, that was important to do as well.

PHILLIPS: Point well made. That was sort of funny. I think we all thought, oh, he is going to talk about health care. But no, he stayed on message, which was great.

Ed Henry, Don Lemon just sent me an e-mail and said he spoke with the officers and they are with Sergeant Crowley right now. And they were watching the president there make his comments. He said, they were happy with what the president was saying.

You know, T.J. and I were listening to the questions there in the press room. People harping on this apology and, you know what? Move forward. I mean, it sounds like everybody, all the players in this situation, including the president said, "Okay, everybody used words maybe they should have not used and things were misconstrued and maybe we all should have handled this differently. There is a much larger discussion to be had here, and that is one on unity. And tackling race relations is still very sensitive in this country."

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. If you take a step back from the whole thing, it was probably a very smart political move for this president to say, you know what? I'm not going to throw Robert Gibbs out there to face 35 questions from all of us in the White House press corps.

How many times in politics have we seen either a president, a senator, sort of hide in their office, not answer the media question, have their press secretary go out there and face the meeting? In this case, the president said, "I am just going to walk out there and step up to the mikes myself and acknowledge that maybe I misspoke a bit at the news conference."

Think back to the campaign. There was a lot of heat on race. The Reverend Wright issue. What did the president and then-senator do? He stepped up with the race speech in philadelphia and obviously won a lot of praise around the country for trying to bring the country together. I think, once again, if you take a step back from all the back and forth, the fact that he stepped up himself and sort of took it on his shoulders and said, "All right, I get it, we need to dial this back" and sort of urged everyone to turn the temperature down. That's very important.

While he and Robert Gibbs stopped short of the word apology, and we will see if there is any fallout from that, to not actually say, I apologize, nevertheless, it is interesting he did do something he didn't do Wednesday at the press conference, which is to say, "Maybe Professor Gates didn't act perfectly here either." He had put it all on the officer. Now, maybe he is being a little more evenhanded there.

PHILLIPS: Obviously the top of the hour, and we gotta wrap, but just I'm wondering, do you know what beer the president drinks, anybody? Suzanne, Ed, T.J.?

HENRY: Last time he had a beer was...

PHILLIPS: T.J.'s got options. Yes, Ed?

HENRY: The last time he had a beer in public, as I recall, was at Washington Wizards game. And you know, they serve all kinds of beer. We will have to interview somebody at the Vernon Center and get to the bottom of that.

PHILLIPS: Perfect. Suzanne, any suggestions?

MALVEAUX: We all want to be there for this beer. We want to be there when this all happens.

PHILLIPS: We all want to share. Sergeant Crowley, if you are listening, what kind of beer do you drink? We want to know what you're bringing. I say in light of Boston, bring the Guinness, you know? We got a lot of good Irish men down in there.

HENRY: Sam Adams. PHILLIPS: Sam Adams? All right.

HOLMES: Maybe Heineken.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, guys.

The bottom line here, it was fascinating to watch the president step up to the mikes. It will be interesting to see where this discussion goes from here. Hopefully, in the broader scheme of things, it will be a very positive conversation about race in America. And, hey, "BLACK IN AMERICA" part two, our special documentary that's been airing this week. Soledad O'Brien doing a great job. We're going to, of course, stay on all these stories and more.

Meanwhile, that does it for us. Have a great weekend. Rick Sanchez takes it from here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)