Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
IRS Chief Under Fire & Firing Back; Nearly 500 U.S. Troops Now in Iraq
Aired June 26, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, thanks very much. Happening now...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I didn't hear in that was an apology.
JOHN KOSKINEN, IRS COMMISSIONER: I don't think an apology is owed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: In the hot seat, he's at the center of a growing scandal over his agency's targeting of conservative groups. I'll speak with the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen.
Five hundred Americans, that's roughly the number of U.S. troops now already on the ground in Baghdad. They're trying to learn if Iraq's military can withstand the insurgent onslaught as the militants take aim as an extraordinary new target.
And grilling Donald Sterling. His clients have included the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and John Travolta. And now the legendary lawyer Burt Fields will cross-examine the Clippers owner. And in a CNN exclusive, he'll join us to talk about that this hour.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
He's the man in the hot seat of a House Republican investigation but has yet to break a sweat. The IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, is no stranger to Washington, and now he finds himself at the center of the scandal over the agency's targeting of conservative groups. John Koskinen will join us in just a moment but first, here's CNN's Tom Foreman.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: I don't believe it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why should anyone believe you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I didn't hear in that was an apology.
KOSKINEN: I don't think an apology is owed. TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Amid the storm of congressional
outrage and accusations, there he sat serene as a saint. IRS commissioner John Koskinen.
KOSKINEN: If you have any evidence of that, I'd be happy to see it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I asked a question.
KOSKINEN: And I answered it.
FOREMAN: Throwing jabs and making jokes.
KOSKINEN: I did not say I would provide you e-mails that disappeared. If you have a magical way for me to do that, I'd be happy to know about it.
FOREMAN: The White House could not have picked a better brawler. Koskinen was trained in physics at Duke and law at Yale. He worked for a New York mayor, a Connecticut senator and was deputy mayor of Washington, D.C., during a financial crisis.
What he likes most, however, are seemingly lost causes. He helped bring the World Cup to the U.S. in '94 when many Americans had never watched a match.
President Clinton tasked him with saving the nation's computers from what was feared would be a Y2K meltdown.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I expect we will experience no major national breakdowns.
FOREMAN: He headed Freddie Mac when its troubles were spinning out of control.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite frankly, we asked for all the e-mails.
KOSKINEN: You're going to get hundreds of thousands of pages of irrelevant documents.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no.
FOREMAN: To interrogators he seems maddeningly unflappable.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've heard the phrase foliation of evidence, haven't you?
KOSKINEN: I can't recall ever hearing it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's true in administrative hearings, civil hearings, criminal hearings.
KOSKINEN: I practiced law once 45 years ago. Gave it up for Lent one year and never went back.
FOREMAN: When asked why he lacks evidence of division chief Lois Lerner's actions from some years back...
KOSKINEN: I have no evidence whether she beat her dog, whether she beat children. I have no evidence of a whole series of things.
FOREMAN: And he's not above giving his opinion whenever he thinks someone needs it.
KOSKINEN: I have a long career. That's the first time anybody has said they do not believe me.
RYAN: I don't believe you.
KOSKINEN: That's fine.
FOREMAN: Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.
BLITZER: And the IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, is here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM. Commissioner, thanks very much for coming in.
KOSKINEN: Delighted to be here.
BLITZER: You got a little smile there. Somebody like Paul Ryan accuses you basically of being a liar, that's a pretty serious allegation.
KOSKINEN: Well, it is a serious allegation. We take the entire question seriously from the start.
As I said when I began, the improper criteria used to highlight organizations for investigation just by their name was a mistake. I apologize to anybody who had their applications held up needlessly. Everybody needs to be confident that the IRS is going to treat them fairly, no matter who they are: Republicans, Democrats, whatever organization they belong to. It's a serious matter.
BLITZER: It's a very serious matter. Remember, the president initially said it was outrageous. The attorney general when the delegations first came out said it was outrageous.
You've been the commissioner now, what, since December. So not -- all this happened before you became the commissioner. So when you were grilled up on the Hill of these -- the testimony, a lot of stuff you didn't know the answer to, right? So what's the biggest question mark in your mind right now? What do you need answered?
KOSKINEN: Right now we're continuing to look at what other hard drives failed back in 2011, '12 and '13. We had to have 2,000 hard drive failures already this year. So as we were completing our review and investigation of how many emails did we have and what had happened to any that were not there, we still need to run to ground who else was affected by this and what was the impact of it.
BLITZER: Because this looks fishy, as you know. The appearance is awful for the IRS right now. I'll give you an example.
Lois Lerner, she is the woman who ran this audit division of tax- exempt organizations. She's the one who pled the 5th, is not -- refusing to cooperate, which is her constitutional right, as we all know.
Her computer hard drive, all of her emails crashed 10 days after the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp, wrote a letter, asking for specific information and all of a sudden, her emails disappeared. That looks suspicious, right?
KOSKINEN: It is suspicious. When we uncovered it, we pursued evidence to try to figure out what happened. We found a train of emails that the Congress has had for some time that noted that they worked extraordinarily hard to try to recover those emails.
We also know that the crash occurred in June, but we have emails from April of 2011, so it was clear that people weren't wiping out emails. And we were able to find 24,000 emails from this period. So they all have not been lost.
BLITZER: But the U.S. archivist who testified before the Hill, you saw him probably, testify, he said the IRS, in his words, "did not follow the law in preserving documents as required by the statute for public and official records."
So someone broke the law.
KOSKINEN: The IRS has run an antiquated response to the Records Act, which everyone treats seriously and that's because of the email system. Official records in communications are printed out in hard copies. All of the information about taxpayers and their files are saved separately.
BLITZER: So one of your predecessors -- and shouldn't someone be blamed for the -- this antiquated awful system that allowed official records to simply disappear?
KOSKINEN: Well, I think somebody, the I.G. is investigating all of the issues about the hard drive crash. My approach, when I parachute into these things, is to try to fix the problems rather than try to figure out how to blame.
And some time ago, I asked for us to review exactly how the email system runs and whether we couldn't convert to a more searchable, more retainable email system. I've also said we need to respond to the concerns of the archivist, who came out with a very interesting suggestion recently, that for agencies struggling, moving forward into an electronic system, they should take the senior people and make sure all of those records and emails are preserved.
I should emphasize that all emails are not official records. So if an email is lost, it doesn't mean we've lost an official record.
BLITZER: But there's suspicion -- the appearance looks really ugly. And don't you think there should be a much more serious investigation, an outside special prosecutor, for example? FBI should come in and take a close look, especially given the appearance of wrongdoing?
KOSKINEN: Well, the Congress has asked the inspector general, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration to do an investigation. He's working very hard at it. We've given him access to all the people, all the emails. He's trying to get at least an interim report out in the next few weeks.
I think the appropriate way to proceed is let's see what the I.G. finds out. We've provided all the information we have about it, including the fact that they tried to retain our emails. We provided everybody the -- whereby the end of next week, all of the 24,000 emails we've found, together with the 43,000 thereafter -- and I think we need to pull all of this together, see what we know and then proceed.
BLITZER: Because the fact that Lois Lerner's emails disappeared, as she's right at the heart of it. She's the woman who pled the 5th. That looks awful, like I think everybody will agree. The appearance is awful.
KOSKINEN: I think it's a serious matter. I've been around Washington a long time and when evidence is not available, it's a...
BLITZER: ... criminal?
KOSKINEN: I don't know whether it's criminal or not. But certainly we need to get to the bottom...
BLITZER: Will there be a criminal investigation?
KOSKINEN: I don't think so at this time there's any evidence of that. And in fact, if Ms. Lerner were destroying emails, she wouldn't have kept making them, all of the emails you've read in public that the House committees have been putting out were all emails she wrote that we provided.
BLITZER: Here's another suggestion. There are these reports -- and I'm sure you've seen it. The IRS did have a contract with a private company, Sonasoft, that would keep a backup of all of these emails, but during the period of the missing emails, suddenly that contract was suddenly canceled.
What was up with that?
KOSKINEN: It's a problem with the piecemeal information getting out. That contract turned out to be for the 3,000 employees in the chief counsel's office. It didn't retain records offsite. It allowed it as a disaster recovery system to move emails from one server to another.
BLITZER: What was it canceled?
KOSKINEN: It was canceled because the chief counsel's office went from Windows Outlook 2002 to Windows Outlook 2010, and the functionality was contained within...
BLITZER: Why not get a different backup system?
KOSKINEN: The general -- chief counsel's office at that time determined they had everything that the outside contractor would provide. At that time, it was possible that somebody could have decided, well, we need a better backup system for the whole agency.
Two years ago the IRS looked at trying to figure out what would it cost to have a better email agency.
BLITZER: The -- here's what a lot of people have pointed out to us. Sarbanes-Oxley -- you're familiar with that law -- private companies, they have to retain email data for five years. You're familiar with that, right?
KOSKINEN: I'm familiar with Sarbanes. I didn't know that particular...
BLITZER: It's a criminal penalty if they don't.
So why wouldn't -- if public companies have to do that, why wouldn't the IRS have to retain important emails for at least five years, as opposed to six months, because they've been recycling their email, their hard drives every six months or so.
That sounds suspicious.
KOSKINEN: I -- the IRS process, though, is every important official record gets -- is supposed to be printed out. We have 2,000 employees trained to make sure that happens. So the official records of the IRS are printed out and are saved in hard copy and now preserved.
The emails, all emails are not official records. So at this point, the policy for the IRS is to in fact print them out. But that's an antiquated program and we're looking at trying to modernize it.
BLITZER: I got a ton of questions. I told my Twitter followers I was going to be interviewing you today, and I asked for some suggested questions. I got a variation of this one by a lot of folks.
This one from T.G. Parker: "Why shouldn't taxpayers use the crashed hard drive excuse when undergoing an IRS audit?"
KOSKINEN: A number of them already have done that, and the question has been is there a dual standard? And as I've said, the IRS has 24,000 Lois Lerner emails from this period. We historically, if a taxpayer has lost electronic records, have said if you have other indications and evidence of what went on, we'll take that from you. It's if you lose a document it doesn't mean you lose the argument. We actually work with taxpayers to say we'll look at other evidence, like the 24,000 emails. And if we can find any evidence to support your case -- and, in fact, if the circumstances support your case, we'll support you and you won't have any problems.
BLITZER: Now you're a Democrat. You've given money to Democratic causes. Democratic candidates, including the President of the United States. And so the suggestion is you're not going to be objective in this kind of investigation.
Reassure the American people that you're not going to let your partisanship interfere with this investigation.
KOSKINEN: I've never been a partisan operative or a political operative. I was actually asked by the Bush administration to come in and work on Freddie Mac.
BLITZER: You did contribute to the Obama campaign.
KOSKINEN: I've contributed to campaigns for the last 40 or 50 years. Many of them friends. I, at this point in my career, it's not my intention at all to play games with the Congress. My goal is to help restore people's faith in a critical institution for the country, the IRS.
As I said, people need to feel comfortable that it's not a politicized agency, that it treats people fairly, no matter who they are.
BLITZER: Because a lot of Democrats -- you think this is just a partisan witch hunt -- but imagine if this were a Republican administration that had the IRS allegedly go after liberal organizations to question their tax-exempt status applications, Democratic-oriented organizations, and all of a sudden, the person who was in charge of that division decides to plead the 5th and all of a sudden a lot of emails are then suddenly missing.
If this were a Republican administration, wouldn't the Democrats be understandably outraged?
KOSKINEN: Whether they'd be outraged or not, I don't know. But this investigation started out on the Hill. As you said, a political review of did the White House, did the Treasury Department, did the administration drive this?
Last week the White House noted it had no emails from Ms. Lerner; Treasury turned over all of its Lois Lerner emails. Nobody has turned up an email yet that says anybody outside of the IRS was involved.
BLITZER: A lot of those emails were missing, though.
KOSKINEN: Not from the Treasury Department...
BLITZER: But from Lois Lerner.
KOSKINEN: Well, but if Lois sent an email to somebody, they have it just the way we have 24,000 of her emails from the crash period that she sent to people within the agency.
BLITZER: Even though it's her right to plead the 5th, and you and I have been in Washington for a long time, doesn't that look fishy, though? Doesn't that -- doesn't that look weird if she did nothing wrong? Why does she have something to hide?
KOSKINEN: I have no idea why she took the 5th. She and her lawyer decided to do that. Our responsibility is to find evidence, produce it to and share it with the six investigations going on. Now the I.G. is doing a seventh one. We've cooperated with everybody. Nobody wants this to end sooner than I do.
Whatever the facts are, I've said, we'll deal with them. We'll deal with the recommendations we've accepted...
BLITZER: ... why not let a special prosecutor investigate?
KOSKINEN: At this point, after six investigations, now the seventh...
BLITZER: But a special prosecutor, you know, can do stuff that an I.G. can't do and others can't do.
KOSKINEN: Listen, nothing has stopped this Congress from subpoenaing records, interviewing people. They are -- they're not doing anything more than a special prosecutor would.
I've said before if the six investigations on the Hill and the Justice Department and the I.G. can't find things out, it'll be surprising to me. And it would be -- seem to me a -- as I said in the past, a significant waste of taxpayer dollars.
We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to get information out. It's a serious question.
BLITZER: Because you don't want the IRS to be getting involved in political witch hunts for political reasons. And if, in fact, that occurred, that's outrageous.
KOSKINEN: That -- I couldn't agree more. I think that, in fact, anytime anyone even suggests internally or externally that the IRS be used for political purposes, that's outrageous.
BLITZER: You saw the -- you saw the email from Lois Lerner suggesting maybe Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Republican, should be audited because of an invitation he got to attend some event, maybe his wife could go along.
KOSKINEN: For years, the IRS internally has had programs that make it impossible for any individual to start an exam. And that's a proposal that I support strongly...
BLITZER: Is she right to make that -- to strike that email? "Let's take a look at Chuck Grassley?"
KOSKINEN: I can't talk about any taxpayer issues. But as I read the email in the press, it's not clear whether she was suggesting the organization should be examined or the senator should be, but at this point, let me just say no individual, then or now, has the ability to cause an exam to start.
All of what -- the vast majority of our exams are all done statistically in terms of going forward. But there are protections. Before an exam starts, several people have to sign off. No individual has the right, the authority and should be allowed to start an exam.
BLITZER: Are you happy you took this job?
KOSKINEN: This job has been perhaps more interesting than I agreed, I kid that I should have read the fine print of the contract more closely.
BLITZER: If you had to it over again would you have said to the president, "No, thanks"?
KOSKINEN: No. I'd take in a minute. If you believe in public service, this agency is critical. It collects most of the money the government spends, and it touches virtually every America and every taxpayer. And I think if you believe in public service, the opportunity to try to help it through this time, to restore the faith of the public that it is, in fact, non-political, that its job is simply tax administration, was too important an opportunity to pass up.
BLITZER: And in the end, and I'll leave you on this, because I know you haven't decided, in the end, that is critical. We all know the important work that the IRS does.
But to just reassure the American people that it's doing the right thing, maybe an independent counsel or special prosecutor is needed to clean this up for good.
KOSKINEN: Again, I think we've got enough investigations going. If the Congress, the Justice Department and the inspector general don't come up with all of the answers, I'll be surprised. We need to, I think, see what they have to say. I've been encouraging the investigators to let us know what they need. And we need to get to closure so everyone will know what the facts were and what the recommendations are.
BLITZER: John Koskinen, the commissioner of the IRS, it's good of you to come in and answer our questions.
KOSKINEN: Delighted to be here.
BLITZER: Up next, some Iraqis turn out to join the army. Others are backing the insurgents. Can their military withstand the onslaught? Nearly 500 American troops are now in Baghdad and trying to find out what's going on.
And it's been a tug of war between the president and the Congress, but the U.S. Supreme Court just lined up on the lawmakers' side with a major ruling against the Obama administration.
BLITZER: As Iraq spirals into sectarian warfare, many are answering the call of the country's prime minister as Shiite religious leaders to turn out for the Iraqi military. But will Iraq's army stand up to the relentless advance by ISIS insurgents and their Sunni allies?
That's the question U.S. troops, a growing number of them are trying to answer on the ground in Iraq. Here's our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the question right now is can the U.S. military get the Iraqi military to get its act together in time?
STARR (voice-over): In Baghdad, nearly 500 U.S. troops are now on the ground, including 180 military advisors, of the 300 President Obama authorized, plus security teams and intelligence analysts already there.
Priority one, determine if Iraqi troops can hold onto the capital or if it's in danger of falling to the ISIS militants. The current assessment? The Shia-dominated Iraqi military will keep control. The Sunni-backed ISIS won't risk an all-out urban war. But there is deep worry about the strength of Iraqi forces across the country.
MARIE HARF, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESWOMAN: What we need to see is the army get back on its feet. We have folks there trying to help the elite units do that and start to retake territories. But the situation on the ground is still very serious.
STARR: Iraq's Haditha damn northwest of the Baghdad may be the most critical target to protect. ISIS and Iraqi units are battling for control of the largest hydroelectric plant in western Iraq. The local police chief told CNN government forces are holding onto the dam, but U.S. intelligence is watching closely. If ISIS seizes the dam, water and power for millions of Iraqis is in jeopardy.
Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki now says he's happy to have Syrian air strikes against ISIS.
NURI AL-MALIKI, PRIME MINISTER OF IRAQ (through translator): There was no coordination involved, but we welcome this action.
STARR: The U.S. does not welcome what it says were Syrian air strikes that reached inside Iraq. CNN has learned U.S. aircraft flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq to collect intelligence are keeping an eye out for both Syrian warplanes and Iranian drones and keeping an eye on threats against U.S. military advisors.
This video message, purportedly from a Sunni cleric, calls for attacks against U.S. embassies worldwide if the U.S. conducts air strikes in Iraq.
STARR: Now, the Pentagon has sent one Army general to Baghdad to run the advisory mission there. Earmarked another general to go to northern Iraq if that part of the mission ever begins to take place. This is a lot of muscle power, Wolf, for whatever may come next.
BLITZER: Barbara, we're also learning the Obama administration will seek $500 million from Congress to start training Syrian rebels. Moderate Syrian rebels. What's the latest on that front?
STARR: Not entirely clear what that training will exactly comprise, but it's still the same issue, Wolf. Who is the moderate Syrian opposition? There are so many factions now fighting in that country, including of course, ISIS, the same faction fighting across the border in Iraq. It just couldn't be more complex. Very difficult to see a way ahead there.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.
Ukrainian officials say that, despite a cease-fire, their security forces came under attack today in the eastern city of Donetsk, a Russian separatist hot bed. The ceasefire declared by Ukraine's new president expires tomorrow, but in an exclusive interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, President Petro Poroshenko says negotiations with separatists will continue even as he signs a cooperation agreement with the European Union. That's the very issue that sparked the bloody crisis in his country. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What do you think President Putin -- you've spoken to him; you were on the phone to him yesterday. I assume you were having several telephone conversations with him around this important time right now. What do you think he wants? Are you the person who can forge a peace deal with him?
PETRO POROSHENKO, PRESIDENT, UKRAINE: I'm ready to make a peace deal with anybody. I want to bring the peace to my country, not because we are weak but because we are left (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We are ready to defend my country, because I hate the idea not to use the last opportunity to bring the peace to the region.
Sometimes the position of Mr. Putin is quite dramatic. Sometimes it is very emotional. I tried to find out the time when he's more pragmatic than emotional.
(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Meantime, the secretary of state, John Kerry, is
turning up the heat on Russia, saying it faces tougher sanctions if it does not act within, quote, "hours" to crack down on the separatists.
Coming up, the U.S. Supreme Court sides with Congress in a high- stakes power struggle with the president. Jeff Toobin is standing by.
And a CNN exclusive. His clients have included the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, and John Travolta. Now the legendary lawyer Burt Fields will cross-examine L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM first to talk about it.
Stay with us. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Certainly been a tug of war between President Obama and the Congress. A high stakes power struggle over presidential recess appointments. Those top jobs the president fills when Congress isn't around here in Washington. And that's fairly often. But in a ruling announced today, all nine Supreme Court justices lined up behind the lawmakers.
Our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is here.
Not often that there's a unanimous decision. This is pretty significant setback for the White House.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Definitely because the Republicans in the Senate have held up a lot of the president's appointees. And one way the president responded was through these recess appointments. But what the court said unanimously today is what you, President Obama, calls a recall or a recess is not really a recess. So those appointments made -- in this case specifically to the National Labor Relations Board -- are invalid and all the actions taken by the NLRB during that time are invalid. So it's a big deal.
BLITZER: That's a huge deal. It's a huge deal and it's unconstitutional. But all presidents have done what are called these recess appointments.
Let me put up on the screen, Ronald Reagan did 240, George H.W. Bush 77, Bill Clinton 139, George W. Bush, 171, Barack Obama only 32 so far.
Some notable recess appointments include the late president when he was a general, Dwight Eisenhower, the Justice Thurgood Marshall, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chair.
The Supreme Court today said there are recess appointments and there are recess appointments. They were ruling against one type of recess appointments.
BLITZER: They were ruling against one type of recess appointment.
TOOBIN: Right. And they were -- and what they were saying is that this tug of war has been going on for a long time. And what the Republicans have done is they have tried to keep the Senate in session for longer for -- so that these recess appointments could not take place. What the Obama administration said was those are -- that's not real, that those are actually not -- the Senate is not really in session. They're really in recess so I can make these appointments. Supreme court said no. The Senate can make its own rules and the Senate says they're in session, they're in session.
BLITZER: Because even during, let's say, between Christmas and New Year's, they could have one United States senator show up for 15 seconds, gavel, we're in session, 15 seconds later saying, gavel, we'll go out of session. We'll take a break.
The Supreme Court ruled that is not a sham. They are in session if that's the rule of the United States Senate.
TOOBIN: Even the Republican House of Representatives can effectively keep the Senate in session. So even though the Democrats control the Senate, the Republicans can keep the Senate in session. That means the president is going to have a hard time doing more recess appointments in the rest of his term.
BLITZER: The White House said they were disappointed but would of course honor the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. The liberal justices, the conservative justices, all nine.
TOOBIN: Just one more day. Monday. Hobby Lobby, the last case will be decided. We'll hear that on Monday.
BLITZER: That will be Monday.
TOOBIN: Monday, yes.
BLITZER: And then they go on vacation.
TOOBIN: That's -- all summer.
BLITZER: All right. Jeffrey, thank you.
Tonight CNN Original Series "THE SIXTIES" returns with the stories of American freedom fighters, men and women who never fired a shot but blazed the trail for civil rights.
Join CNN or set your DVR for "THE SIXTIES: A LONG MARCH TO FREEDOM," tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're marching today to dramatize to the nation hundreds and thousands of negro citizens of Alabama denied the right to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're willing to be beaten for democracy and you must use democracy in the streets.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think you can keep Birmingham in the present situation of segregation?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I may not be able to do it but I'll die trying.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: I thought we were going to be arrested and when he said troopers advance, I thought I was going to die.
JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe the time has come for the president to step in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
ANNOUNCER: The SIXTIES tonight at 9:00 on CNN.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Up next, he's been called the most feared lawyer in Los Angeles. He's about to cross-examine Donald Sterling. My exclusive interview with the attorney Bert Fields. That's coming up.
Plus, a disturbing scenario. Did Malaysia Flight 370 fly to its doom with both pilot unconscious? We have details why some now believe the plane spent its final hours on autopilot.
BLITZER: He's Hollywood's heavyweight lawyer, notorious for some brutal cross-examination over the years and soon he'll be unleashing it on Donald Sterling himself in his lawsuit to block the sale of the L.A. Clippers.
I'll have an exclusive interview with Bert Fields. He's in L.A. He's standing by. We'll speak in just a moment. But let's get some background first.
CNN's Brian Todd is here to show us what Sterling is likely in for -- Brian.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is a dramatic new development in the Donald Sterling case. A bold stroke by the attorneys for his estranged wife Shelly. In setting up Bert Fields to confront Sterling they're bringing in a man who has brought some of Hollywood's most powerful people to their knees in court.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): A dramatic courtroom confrontation between
two Hollywood heavyweights. Super lawyer Bert Fields squaring off against then Disney chairman Michael Eisner. Eisner accused of not paying former Disney bigwig Jeffrey Katzenberg what he owed him.
Fields' question to Eisner, "You said I think I hate the little midget?" Eisner, with visible anger, "I just want to say that is ill advised. And if you pursue this line of questioning, it will put in the public record those things that I think are not necessary to be in the public record."
Fields, "And did you say to Mr. Schwartz, 'I don't care what he thinks. I am not going to pay him any of the money'?
Eisner, "I would say again, in anger, I said that."
Eisner and Disney reportedly ended up paying Katzenberg more than $250 million. Now Bert Fields will face off against Donald Sterling.
(On camera): Do you expect him to get under Donald Sterling's skin?
MARK GERAGOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I do expect him to get under Sterling's skin. I think there's certain hot buttons, not the least of which is probably Magic Johnson, and those kinds of things are hard for Sterling's lawyer to control him on.
TODD (voice-over): Sterling felt betrayed by Magic Johnson after Sterling's racist remarks were leaked to the public. When the trial over Donald Sterling's mental capacity starts, with the future of the L.A. Clippers at stake, Sterling, a lawyer himself, will face a man who's got a reputation as a pitbull in court.
PROF. LAURIE LEVENSON, LOYOLA LAW SCHOOL: Bert Fields is one of the great ones in Los Angeles. He is a legend.
TODD: Fields has represented superstars like Tom Cruise, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg.
At this trial, Sterling's estranged wife Shelly will try to prove she acted properly in removing Donald Sterling from the family trust and agreeing to sell the Clippers on her own. Her side, according to court papers, will hammer at Donald Sterling's alleged mental incapacitation which his side denies.
LEVENSON: It will be very uncomfortable because I think Bert Fields won't have any problem at all just picking at Donald Sterling and getting him to fall apart right there in the courtroom.
TODD: But those attorneys we spoke to, experienced litigators in Los Angeles, warn that Donald Sterling himself has been through some tough cross-examinations and that he's a wiley operator in court. They also say if Bert Fields is too aggressive, it might blow up in his face. If he hammers mercilessly at Sterling, it could bring about something maybe none of us thought was possible. It could make Donald Sterling seem like a sympathetic figure -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much.
Bert Fields is joining us now from Los Angeles.
Bert, thanks very much for coming in. So Donald Sterling's spoken out. You've seen the interviews. He's trying to explain himself. What do you want him to explain to the public, to the fans, to the NBA, about his behavior during your cross-examination?
BERTRAM FIELDS, ATTORNEY WHO WILL CROSS-EXAMINE DONALD STERLING: I just want him to face up to the truth. And the truth, if he faces up to it, is going to show that Shelly behaved properly and he did not. When I say he did not, I've got some very strong feelings about Mr. Sterling's behavior in a number of ways. And hopefully, the cross-examination will bring those things out.
BLITZER: Give me an example.
FIELDS: Well, here's a guy who in writing authorized Shelly to sell the team. Here's a guy who then said I'm joining in her sale. I'm really happy about it. I join in selling the team. Five days later, he said I'm fighting the sale of the team. Why did he do it? According to his lawyer, he did it to restore his dignity. Now that's just ego.
Mr. Ballmer has agreed to pay $2 billion, a fantastic price for this team. It's a great thing for Mr. Sterling's family. If he gives a damn about his family, he'd grab at that, but no, he's more concerned with restoring his ego. And those are his attorneys' words. Well, that's the kind of guy that is a pleasure to cross-examine.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by for a moment because we're just getting started. We have a lot more questions. Do you believe, for example, that Donald Sterling is mentally competent? It's an important feature.
I'll ask that question when our exclusive interview with Bert Fields continues.
BLITZER: We're back with our exclusive interview with the Los Angeles attorney Berth Fields who will be doing the cross-examining of Donald Sterling in his lawsuit trying to block the sale of the L.A. Clippers.
So, Bert, do you believe that Donald Sterling is mentally competent?
FIELDS: Depends on what you mean. If you mean can he function as a trustee, he is certainly not competent to function as a trustee. Two very distinguished doctors have examined him and have certified that he is not competent to be a trustee. That doesn't mean he's crazy. It doesn't mean that he should be institutionalized or anything like that. He should function as a human being with but he shouldn't be a trustee of this vastly wealthy trust.
BLITZER: His lawyers --
FIELDS: It's not right for his family.
BLITZER: His lawyers have suggested those two doctors who examined him are violating doctor/patient privileges. What do you say about that when that comes up?
FIELDS: I don't think they'll say that in court because if they did they'd be all wet. He specifically waived the doctor/patient privilege when he signed the trust. It explicitly provides for a waiver of that privilege. Otherwise you couldn't ever examine the trustee to show that he wasn't competent. And that's right there in the trust instrument.
BLITZER: I --
FIELDS: Which they would like to ignore.
BLITZER: I assume their lawyers, Donald Sterling's lawyers, are getting other doctors to examine him and will come to a different conclusion. I assume you anticipate that?
FIELDS: Of course if it comes to a trial we anticipate that. What we have asked the court to do is not to have a trial or to have a very brief one because the trust instrument says if two professional doctors, specialists in the field certify that he is incompetent to be a trustee, that's it, he needs to be out as a trustee. They have done that.
The whole point of putting that provision in the trust, which Donald signed, is to avoid a trial so you don't have this battle of the experts. And it's embarrassing for Donald, it will be embarrassing for him. It's costly. That's why they put it in the trust. He's trying to get out of that and he'll try to call people who will say our doctors are wrong.
Well, the doctors are not wrong. They are very, very distinguished people. One of the doctors wrote the actual regulations that are in the code on how you judge competence to be a trustee. They're not going to knock those guys over.
BLITZER: So how aggressive are you going to be during your cross-examination of Donald Sterling? Because if you go too far you might create some sympathy for the guy.
FIELDS: Well, you're absolutely right about that. And it's my job not to create sympathy for the guy but to bring out the truth by questioning him carefully. I'm not going to tip my hand as to how I'm going to do that but I'm certainly not going to be stupid enough to be a bully or be abusive.
I hope I've never been abusive in a courtroom and I'm sure as hell not going to be abusive to Donald Sterling. My guess is, from seeing Donald Sterling, he'll be abusive to me. You know, he's threatened our doctors, called them up, said he was going to take their licenses away, he was going to sue them. He was going to get the -- one doctor, who's a distinguished man from UCLA, he was going to get him thrown out of UCLA.
This is the kind of guy Donald Sterling is. So if anybody is going to be abusive in this courtroom, it's going to be Donald Sterling. Not going to be me.
BLITZER: Did he know when he was examined by these two doctors in Los Angeles at the request of his wife that this -- whatever they came up with could be used to remove him as an owner, for all practical purposes, of the Clippers?
FIELDS: He may or may not have known that. I hope the doctors didn't tell him that because if you read the literature in the field, it would put him under enormous stress if you told him your being a trustee, your competence depends on how you do today in this examination. So I think if you're a competent doctor, you don't want to tell him that he's there being tested to see whether he's competent to be a trustee.
BLITZER: How long is your cross-examination, do you anticipate it will last?
FIELDS: I would think a couple of hours. I'm usually pretty short in cross-examining. If I can't do it in a couple of hours, I probably can't do it.
BLITZER: And your goal is to try to convince everyone that he isn't really mentally competent to remain as a trustee?
FIELDS: Well, I have a number of goals. And among those goals is the issue of competence if the judge says that has to be tried. There are other issues, like, did he authorize her to make this deal and now that he's now trying to back out of. Many, many other issues.
BLITZER: Bert Fields, thanks so much for joining us. We'd like to stay in touch with you as this situation continues. Thanks very much for coming in.
FIELDS: Wolf, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
BLITZER: All right, good.
Coming up here in the SITUATION ROOM, nearly 500 U.S. troops are now on the ground in Iraq as Washington winds up on the same side as some of its enemies. We're going to live to Baghdad for an exclusive report.