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Dennis Hastert Indicted; Theater Shooting Trial; Bowe Bergdahl Swap; Race for 2016: 3 More Candidates Enter 2016 Presidential Race; Interview with U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Aired 9- 10a ET

Aired May 30, 2015 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:11] MICHAEL SMERCONISH, HOST: I'm Michael Smerconish. Welcome to the program.

He was one of the most powerful men in Washington and now, explosive new allegations against former House speaker Dennis Hastert.

Sources tell CNN Hastert was paying a former male student in order to keep quiet about allegations of sexual misconduct when Hastert was a teacher and a wrestling coach in Illinois. The student was underage at the time. And now, Hastert is facing felony charges for allegedly lying to the FBI about the more than $3 million that he paid the man in apparent hush money.

There are so many questions about this case. I want to bring in CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, I don't know how surprised you are by the latest developments because when we read closely that seven-page indictment, the tell-tale signs were there as to what this seemingly was all about.

JEFFERY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. I mean, well, let's just step back. I'm surprised by this whole thing. I mean, this whole thing is an astonishing surprise to me. I mean, I -- the fact that Denny Hastert is being accused of this crime and particularly, the kind of crime. But once you read the indictment yesterday, it almost couldn't be anything except an accusation of sexual abuse that would prompt someone to pay $3.5 million decades later.

SMERCONISH: Let me put on the screen the very first line of the indictment. I think this is what you're referring to.

It says, "From approximately 1965 to 1981, defendant John Dennis Hastert was a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois." That's the first thing the Feds wanted you to know in the indictment.

And then, further along -- I'll put something else on the screen -- "Individual A has been a resident of Yorkville, Illinois and has known defendant John Dennis Hastert for most of Individual A's life." The implication, I think, he was young at the time of whatever the misconduct was when it took place.

TOOBIN: Exactly. And anyone who has lived in the real world who read those -- who read those documents had to assume that this was some sort of sexual misconduct in a -- in an earlier chapter of Hastert's life. But it's only the day after the indictment that our reporting and other people's reporting have confirmed that it is an accusation and only an accusation of sexual misconduct at the time that Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach.

SMERCONISH: And yet, Jeffrey, that's not what the legal case is about. I mean, those are the salacious allegations, implications of this case. But the man is being prosecuted for so-called "structuring" and I know you're an expert in that regard and then lying to the Feds. It's got a Watergate element where the cover-up is that which is going to potentially bring him down.

TOOBIN: Right. Well, that's what makes this - one of the many things that makes this case so bizarre is that the core accusations are two. One is that Hastert engaged in what's known as "structuring" which is putting his cash withdrawals from his bank in a way to avoid the obligation that banks have to report all large cash transactions to the Treasury department. Those cases -- people may not be very familiar with them but they are very common. Because banks -- the Congress passed a law where they said, in essence, "We are suspicious of people who are engaging in large cash transactions so we want to put this law in effect that says you have to report them and bad guys tend to avoid reporting them." And then there is the very straightforward crime of lying to the FBI where he's alleged to have made up really what seems like an absurd story about why he was withdrawing over a million dollars.

SMERCONISH: Jeffrey, I can't imagine that Individual A would have had a cognizable legal claim 40, 50 years after whatever it is that took place. If I'm right in that regard that there was no potential legal claim that he had then doesn't this have the makings of extortion because presumably, it's Hastert paying so that this individual doesn't embarrass him.

TOOBIN: That is certainly a major issue in the background of this case is was the request for money from Individual A a genuine request for compensation that -- for a terrible thing that was done for -- done to him many years ago or was it simply extortion in the way that David Letterman was extorted not too long ago for a related but certainly not identical kind of claim of misconduct? I can certainly understand why the FBI -- if they believe that this person was a victim of sexual abuse - didn't want to prosecute him. Victims of sexual abuse are not very appealing defendants.

[09:05:04] But certainly, if Denny Hastert takes this case to trial, extortion will be his defense. He will -- his lawyers will say, "Look, he is a law-abiding, honorable citizen who was confronted with this horrible accusation and to spare his family embarrassment, he paid this person off." But that is not -- but he would certainly not admit that he engaged in this - in the terrible underlying act.

SMERCONISH: $10,000 withdrawals. That's what triggers the reportage to the Feds. In this case, he allegedly made $50,000 withdrawals. Had he written a check instead of going back and forth to the bank, would you and I be having this conversation? TOOBIN: Absolutely not. If he had written a check for $3.5 million at the very beginning of this process, no illegality, certainly no bank currency issue, no false statement to the FBI, no investigation at all, and I think this whole matter would never have been disclosed. Why he decided to do this in cash, why he did it this way, perhaps we'll never know. But you're right. If he'd simply written a check, no harm, no foul.

SMERCONISH: And when the Feds came knocking, apparently he told them, "Hey, I was worried about the stability of the banks."

TOOBIN: I mean, respectfully to a former Speaker of the House, have you ever heard anything so dumb? I mean, the idea that the banks were somehow going to -- he was worried that the banks were going to go out of business so that's why he was taking his cash out. That's going to be a tough one to defend at trial, if this case goes to trial. And by the way, a 73-year-old man facing a trial that if he's convicted after trial, might, well, having him sent to prison, I think this case will end in a plea bargain that does not send him to prison.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: All right.

SMERCONISH: Coming up, the Republican presidential field continues to grow week to week. They all want a place on that debate stage. To get there, they'll have to change their campaign strategy. Is that a good or a bad thing?

Plus, those five Taliban prisoners released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl could soon return to the battlefield and I'll explain why.

And critical evidence introduced in the Colorado theater shooting. Disturbing details behind James Holmes' deadly rampage.


[09:11:22] SMERCONISH: Welcome back.

This week, jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial got a glimpse inside the mind of James Holmes.

Prosecutors introduced a critical piece of evidence -- the diary of a mass murderer. Holmes' notebook was filled with disturbing details which show he meticulously planned out his deadly attack and it depicts his thought process for choosing the movie theater as well as his plans for a police response.

And for the first time, jurors heard from Holmes during a videotaped interview with the psychiatrist after the shooting spree.


DR. REID: What brings tears to your eyes sometimes?

JAMES HOLMES: Just regrets. DR. REID: Regrets. Can you tell me a little more?

HOLMES: Usually it's before I go to sleep.

DR. REID: Regrets about?

HOLMES: About the shooting.


SMERCONISH: I want to discuss this with psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz.

Dr. Saltz, to the uninitiated, to a lay person, you look at that notebook and you see him writing "why" countless times. And then you also see him planning meticulously the attack inside the theater and you say, "This guy is off his rocker." But, of course, that's not the legal standard.

DR. GAIL SALTZ, PSYCHIATRIST: Well, it's not the legal standard and it's also actually not even the psychiatric standard. The psychiatric standard are very specific diagnostic criteria, which he may meet, in fact, even for -- say -- schizophrenia, if he had psychotic thinking repetitively and he has certain other symptoms that would go with schizophrenia. But even if he does have that diagnosis, it doesn't mean that he's legally insane. So legally insane would require him to have not just psychotic thoughts at that time, but psychotic thoughts that specifically altered his ability to know that what he was doing was wrong.

SMERCONISH: Psychotic thoughts when? Psychotic thoughts when he walked into the theater? Psychotic thoughts three weeks in advance? I mean, it occurs to me that this could be something not necessarily on a continuum.

SALTZ: That is true. But if he would -- even if he had psychotic thoughts three weeks in advance and during the crime, if those thoughts did not impinge on his ability to understand what he was doing and that what he was doing was wrong then it's not legally insane. So, for example, the case of Andrea Yates who drowned her children -- she was deemed legally insane ultimately because her psychotic thoughts were auditory hallucinations that told her that if she didn't drown her children, that she would be sending their souls to hell and therefore it was the right thing to do. So her psychotic thinking impinged her ability to know that what she was doing was wrong. In fact, she thought it was right. But if Mr. Holmes believed that what he was doing was wrong, that he was trying to hide what he was doing because if he got caught, he would be punished for it because he knew it was wrong, even if he had other thoughts like, for instance, that he was the Joker, that he was -- that he had other psychotic thinking at the same time, it still does not meet the official criteria for legally insane.

SMERCONISH: We in the media love talking about cases where the insanity defense is raised. Usually, they are high profile cases with a lot of casualties but they're rarely successful. Why is that the case? SALTZ: Exactly because of this criteria. So we look at someone who would kill many people and we say, "Wow, they must be insane", right? Or if they had ramblings that have other psychotic thoughts attached to them, we think, "They must be insane and therefore not guilty by reasons of insanity."

[09:15:02] But because the law -- and I think there -- you can really understand how this would be -- it's impossible that somebody who is very mentally ill can still commit a terrible, terrible crime due to sociopathic desires, like "I just feel like killing people" and therefore be committing murder and you can't blame it on your mental illness.

SMERCONISH: Dr. Saltz, finally, isn't that notebook the ultimate Rorschach test? You can read into it that he was insane in a legal sense at the time that he was planning these attacks. You could also look at it and say, "Well, wait a minute. He was so meticulous. That's the product of a sane mind."

SALTZ: It's certainly more insight than one often has in these crimes into what was going on before and during but it's not really the gold standards because the gold standard was what was actually inside his mind and what he wrote down was what he chose to write down. So therein lies the problem somewhat and that's why there is going to be this court case and some back and forth about what was -- what do we really have evidence for was going on in his mind at that time.

SMERCONISH: Dr. Gail Saltz. Thank you so much.

SALTZ: My pleasure.

SMERCONISH: Coming up, five Taliban leaders released from GTMO in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl could soon be free. The clock is ticking on their release from Qatar. What it means for the Obama administration.

Plus, Rick Santorum announcing a second run for the White House this week. Some are already calling his campaign "doomed." Hey, this guy won 11 states in 2012. Doesn't he deserve more respect?


[09:20:38] SMERCONISH: Welcome back.

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the transfer of the five Taliban leaders released from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. The one-year agreement for Qatar to house and monitor them is now up.

So what will happen next? Could they soon return to the battlefield?

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, I don't know if you remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid but here's my question. Who are these guys? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: There's the question,

Michael, and what is going to happen to them? Well, look, these are a number of top-level Taliban operatives. Of course, they've been held at Guantanamo Bay until they were traded for that release last year for Bowe Bergdahl to get him back into U.S. hands. Now, the titles that these guys have, it's things like chief of intelligence, minister of interior, top Taliban official in communications. These are the kinds of titles, if you will, that they are associated with. Look, clearly, they were top Taliban operatives. The U.S. took them off the battlefield. A lot of controversy about that. But people will tell you that they were going to be due for transfer out of Guantanamo Bay anyhow. These are not the top, top tier. These are not the top guys responsible for the 9/11 attacks. These are the kinds of people that the U.S. is planning to transfer out anyhow so they did it in return for Bowe Bergdahl, very controversial, they're not insignificant players. But sooner or later, the chances are they were going to get transferred out of Guantanamo Bay.

SMERCONISH: So what are the options the government -- the U.S. government -- and Qatar are now considering?

STARR: Well, it's actually sort of a three-way potential situation and the negotiations, the discussions have been going along very quietly for months now, we know. There's a couple of things that are on the table. Some or all of the Taliban 5 could remain Qatar. They could remain in the very strict monitoring that the Qataris have promised to give them and indeed have given them over the last year. One or all could remain in Qatar and sort of join, if you will, with an existing Taliban quasi-governmental type organization the Taliban are running out of Qatar still under some sort of control, some sort of monitoring by the Qataris or they could be completely set free -- sent back to their families in Afghanistan or sent back to Afghanistan and the welcome committee could be the Afghan government who could decide to take them into custody for their Taliban activities. Lots of things in play here and of course, as you remember, Michael, one of the five got himself into trouble because he was caught trying to communicate from Qatar to Taliban associates. That is something that was forbidden.

SMERCONISH: Is that -- is that the one that you exclusively reported had returned to violent activities?

STARR: Well, I will say that we here at CNN on the Pentagon team, yes, we did report it. Did he ever return to violent activities? That perhaps is an open question. The intelligence community never really said that. We have multiple (inaudible) told us he had been in communication -- phone, email -- with (inaudible) one Taliban associates. That was forbidden under the transfer agreement. You're not supposed to get back with those people. You can call your family members. You can complain. You can complain about how you were treated. You can complain about the United States but you can't call people up and engage in conversations that could lead to plotting and planning. There was a clear indication the intelligence community thought that's what was going on.

SMERCONISH: Barbara Starr. Thank you. Let's get more now from the chair of the House foreign affairs committee. Congressman Ed Royce.

Mr. Chairman, Barbara Starr just made the observation that these five bad guys were to have been released anyway. Maybe we should be grateful that we were able to at least get Bergdahl back in exchange for them.

REP. ED ROYCE (R-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Well, Michael, the difficulty with the premise that we should have released the individuals who were what -- the deputy minister of intelligence, the deputy minister of defense for the Taliban, a third individual who was very close to Osama bin Laden. A fourth who was involved in crimes against humanity, and the fifth, who likewise had been involved in killing many innocent people who were not Taliban, four of the five, by the way, are tied into Al Qaeda. It's not just Taliban here.

[09:25:08] I think what's driving it is this impetus. They've got a special envoy now in charge of closing Guantanamo from their standpoint. From the administration's standpoint, they're all going to be transferred out because they want to release all of them. But whether that's prudent especially under conditions where now, they've already been in contact or at least one has -- with the terrorist networks, we're going to see these guys on the battlefield again.

SMERCONISH: Would you have left Bergdahl behind?

ROYCE: Well, I think it -- we should do what we can to try to negotiate the release of our service members overseas but the reality is you're looking at five individuals -- four of whom were high- ranking in Al Qaeda, not just in the Taliban, and we've got to experience now that 30 percent have shown up back on the battlefield to try to kill Americans. So I don't think that was a good tradeoff.

SMERCONISH: Is your view of this transaction skewed by the fact that you believed then and believe now that Bergdahl was a deserter?

ROYCE: My view of this is skewed or is patterned by my knowledge of what's been done to release not just these five but another six to Uruguay who from the documents that I've seen had ties to terrorism and the rationalization on the part of the administration. I think deep down that the only thing driving this is the impetus to close Guantanamo Bay and fulfill a campaign pledge and I just don't think in the face of the reality of what these individuals have done and will likely do again. In the case of Uruguay, we've had 40 cases of them in proximity now to our embassy down there. In the case of these five that we talk about here, in Qatar, we've got ample evidence that they -- at least part of that element intend to return to fight. And so given the reality we're dealing with here and the fact that they've killed between them thousands and thousands of human beings, I don't think it's wise to release them.

SMERCONISH: Mr. Chairman, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, I was of the "throw away the key" mindset and as the years have passed, the attorney in me has become increasingly troubled by the fact that we are holding individuals there who've not been given the benefit of a trial. Are you similarly concerned?

ROYCE: Well, I think in these cases where you have individuals with ties to Al Qaeda, in an abundance of caution, while this struggle is going on with Al Qaeda and they continue to try to bomb us here in the United States and carry out ongoing attacks against our allies, it is rather foolish to take a personnel -- let's take four of the five -- when you know they've had those ties and to release them especially given the background. Here you have individuals -- deputy -- one's a commander, well, one's deputy minister of defense for Taliban, another's deputy intelligence chief for the Taliban and between them have killed thousands of human beings and you release them, I think we know what's going to happen. And it's going to cost American lives and the lives of our allies.

SMERCONISH: OK. But the alternative then, I guess what I'm saying is look, this conflict is not ending. I hope you live to be 150 and that I'm there to see it but I don't think this conflict is ending in either of our lives. So what then are we saying? "We're going to keep you where people like you in GTMO and you're never even going to get a trial".

ROYCE: This is a difficult situation but in the past, when we were involved with foreign combatants in a situation of war, whether it was the second World War or the first, we -- they were held in captivity until after hostilities ceased. Why? Because they had an allegiance. They had an allegiance to a foreign enemy that was at war with us. Four of these five have an allegiance to Al Qaeda. The fifth has an allegiance to the Taliban. The Taliban has not laid down their arms. Now, if we manage to negotiate that and they do, then there's something to talk about in terms of perhaps releasing them or at least releasing them under conditions in which they are observed on an ongoing basis. But to release them with a one-year period after which they're going to go free to do what they want to do and travel where they want to travel while Al Qaeda's still carrying out a war with us and the Taliban is still making war on the United States, that is throwing caution to the wind and taking enormous risks with our personnel and with our allies in the region who (inaudible).

[09:30:01] SMERCONISH: Quick, final question, if I might.


SMERCONISH: Is there any congressional plan on this issue? Anything that you as a member of Congress can do, the chair of your committee, your powerful committee?

ROYCE: We are seeking documents right now in order to delve further into the release of some of these individuals who, obviously, have turned out to be an ongoing threat. And at the same time, another step that we're trying to take is to block the closure of Guantanamo because we think that's driving the release, the immediate release of these individuals who have a pattern of carrying out terrorist attacks against civilians and against U.S. military.

SMERCONISH: Chairman Royce, thank you for your time.

ROYCE: Thank you very much, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Coming up: three more candidates entering the 2016 presidential race. The GOP field is now more crowded than ever. Which of the Republican candidates is the Rodney Dangerfield on that list?


SMERCONISH: Welcome back.

The ever-growing GOP 2016 presidential field added two more names this week.

[09:35:00] Rick Santorum is in, so is former New York Governor George Pataki. And today, Democrat Martin O'Malley announces his plans to run.

Lots to tackle on the political front, let's get right to it. Joining me now, nationally syndicated columnist and CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp. Also here, liberal commentator and columnist, Ellis Henican.

S.E., Rick Santorum, the Rodney Dangerfield of the Republican field, right? I mean, here's a guy who won 11 states. He was the runner up to Mitt Romney and yet you'd never know it from the way in which the media treats the field.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, he gets no respect, which is I think where you were going with that. And it really is kind of surprising when you consider that the last time, not only was he the runner up, but of the last three guys standing, two were social conservatives, him and Newt Gingrich. The guy that ended up winning never really captured the excitement of the base.

So, if you're Rick Santorum, you have to think, OK, this time around, there is also room for a social conservative and now he's got to compete with people like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry maybe, but, still, he knows there is probably room for someone like him. He's just got to sort of clear the field and get through.

So, I think -- I think it's bizarre to dismiss last year's runner up as so many liberals and conservatives do. I think it's a mistake.

SMERCONISH: Ellis, Chris Christie seems to be checking all those boxes. He ditched Common Core this week. He spoke out against the president, vis-a-vis Israel and said that Obama has not been, I'm just paraphrasing, but not been the friend that Israel needs. And what I'm thinking of is that you check all those boxes and that is great you appeal to the GOP base, you help yourself with regard to the nomination, but in the end you put yourself in a worse spot for a general election.

ELLIS HENICAN, COLUMNIST: You're absolutely right. It may not be the most fertile territory for Chris Christie, right? I mean, I go back to the rule of fractions that I learned at holy name of Jesus, right? That when you have so many people in this race, it doesn't take a very big slice to have the largest slice. So, you can find that a lot of different places.

The odd thing at the moment is that the super conservative side of the equation is pretty crowded and that middle zone where Chris Christie would normally have played is not so crowded. So, frankly, I'm not sure it's so smart for him trying to out-conservative the conservatives.

SMERCONISH: Well, S.E., to his point -- I mean, isn't the oxygen that exists really in the middle, therefore, Jeb is the one who stand to gain from all of this?

CUPP: Yes, and I actually think Christie has a clear strategy as we're learning it. That is to take on the opposition and his party via that these proxy issues. So, he can take on common core and that's a slap at Jeb Bush without even having to say his name. He can take on the president and Israel and that's really actually a subtle slap at Rand Paul without even having to say his name.

So, while the other GOP contenders are really out there talking about Hillary, Chris Christie is actually managing to talk about issues and the other contenders in, I think, a way that is attempting to sort of clear the field and bring him back.

SMERCONISH: Ellis, with regard to Rand Paul, as he's gotten into this race, I have said that he is looking less and less like his father. That is until this week because this week Rand Paul blamed the GOP hawks for the creation of ISIS.

And I'm wondering which Rand Paul are we really going to see as the race heats up? The libertarian champion or someone who feels obliged to attack a more traditional tone to appeal to the base?

HENICAN: You know, Michael, you trace the back and forth exactly right. That we were expecting Rand and we got Ron. Maybe now, we're getting a little more Rand.

SMERCONISH: Right, right.

HENICAN: I like the Ron version. It seems to me -- again, getting back to my fractions. There is nobody on that side of the equation. Now, it's true the base isn't really there either. We don't really know how much of that kind of foreign policy audience there is in the GOP. But, I mean, you've got to do something to stand out. So, why not that?

CUPP: Yes, Ellis, I mean, the 88 percent of Republican voters say terrorism is a big priority for their next president. So, he might get like 5 percent of the Ron Paul newsletter subscribers. But this is really not, this is not smart. It's calling for anyone to suggest that an American party created ISIS, it's really galling for a Republican running for president to say it. I think --

SMERCONISH: S.E., does the debate issue that is now lurking for the GOP, what to do with all these candidates -- an issue being faced by CNN, an issue that will be faced by FOX in that first debate. Does that pose a threat to retail politicking in New Hampshire and in Iowa? And by that, I mean, you know, we really allow those two states to vet our presidents, but it doesn't make sense if you're Rick Santorum to put on the sweater vest and shake all those hands. You've got to get on national TV and boost your numbers or you're not getting in the debate.

CUPP: I mean, the debate is all about name ID.

[09:40:01] So, the theory there is to get out, make news, give interviews and at least boost your name ID.

However, because there are so many in the field, the other side of the coin is you kind of want to do no harm until you absolutely have to because you know, because of past experience when it's a crowded field like it was in 2012, some of these guys are going to crash and burn early. I mean, just look at Rick Perry. Everyone really thought he was really going to go far and he poofed out pretty early.

So, you have to walk a fine line between getting headlines and boosting name ID, but not burning themselves too soon.

SMERCONISH: Ellis, on the Republican side of the aisle, who is the last man or Carly Fiorina is a woman. The last people, I'll say, standing. Give me two or three names.

HENICAN: Well, you know, John Kasich is one I have been paying attention to. He is like Jeb without the Bush bag. I think he is someone who actually has some reasonable growth potential. I mean, Marco Rubio has got a good story, he's an attractive guy, the generation is right. Maybe he'll peel off a few Latino voters. Those are kind of the two that I'm looking at right now.

SMERCONISH: All right. You're not saying Jeb Bush.

S.E., who are the last individuals standing on the Republican side of the aisle?

CUPP: I think we're going to have, if I had to call it today a Walker/Rubio ticket.


CUPP: And it's funny, I was with Scott Walker a couple of weeks ago and I posed this idea to him. An idea that I thought was very novel and he sort of chuckled and said, yes, I heard that from a lot of people.

So, not very novel. Apparently, a popular idea. But that's where I see this.

SMERCONISH: And finally, have either of you read Bernie Sanders bizarre sex essay written when he was 30 years old? When I heard about it and thought, well, you know, if he were 13, 14, OK. But he was 30 years old when he wrote it. No Republican could get away with that.

Have either of you read it or am I the only one? HENICAN: I think they have a couple of -- I'll make you a deal,

Michael. I won't make fun of Bernie's essay and you please don't read any of early columns. How about that?


HENICAN: Although none were about that topic, I want to be clear.

SMERCONISH: S.E., you're taking a pass on it. You haven't read it.

CUPP: I have no desire -- I have read it. I have no desire to delve into the dark mind of Bernie Sanders from that, or any decade.

SMERCONISH: Hey, maybe that's what socialism is, who knows?


SMERCONISH: S.E. Cupp, Ellis Henican, thank you so much for being here.

HENICAN: Good to see you.

CUPP: Thanks.

SMERCONISH: Coming up, the pope is coming to America. He's not running for president, but he may as well be. I'll tell you why he could frame the debates for the 2016 contenders.

Plus, ISIS terrorists, deadly path of destruction through Iraq highlights a deeper problem in the country. Will the war ever really end there? We'll talk about it.


[09:46:55] SMERCONISH: Welcome back.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke candidly recently about the weak state of Iraq's military, the country's deep rooted turmoil has had a significant impact on efforts to build a military leaving it in other disarray. This despite U.S. efforts to train Iraqi forces to better prepare themselves for the war against ISIS.

Much of the discord however lies in the fact that the country doesn't even exist as a unified state due in large part to a deep sectarian divide.

Let's get more on this from Congressman Adam Kinzinger. He served in the Air Force in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was among the first members of Congress to call for air strikes against ISIS.

Congressman, I'm starting to have a humpty-dumpty view of Iraq. If you remember, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put humpty together, again. Is the answer partition?

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: I don't think it is. There's a lot of problems with partition. Number one, oil wealth is not spread uniformly through Sunni and Shia areas, as well as Kurdish areas. You know, there's a lot of differences. You have, obviously, some Shia in Sunni areas. Some Sunni in Shia areas.

I think partition is probably an overly simplified way of fixing a problem that would only really make it worse. And plus, you think about the fact, too, other countries that are being held together and have different populations, what's going to do any sectarian in those countries?

So, I actually think the problem could end up being a lot worse. This is a lot like '05 and '06, when we were sitting around and saying in Iraq that there was no way to fix this problem. This was just going to be a mess. We need to roll up the carpet and go home.

Well, at the end of the day, we did see some success when we added 20,000 troops, yes, but it was mostly the engagement of the Sunni population, the disaffected Sunni population.

So, I think there is still a way to salvage it. But again, every day that goes by, every, you know, Shia person that commits violence. Every Sunni ISIS that commits violence, it just makes that divide even greater.

SMERCONISH: Isn't one of the differences between '05 and '06 where we are now is you have ISIS taking credit for bombings outside of Iraq and you have ISIS seemingly trying to govern and they have become the caliphate that they wish to be, no?

KINZINGER: They are doing, in essence, what al Qaeda did except now, again, it's projected, as you mentioned, outside of Iraq. We're talking now into Saudi Arabia. Potentially Jordan now is looking at concerns. Lebanon.

This is a very big problem. That's why I think the answer to this is not, I mean, a lot of things we need to do in Iraq, but I think we have to deal a devastating blow to ISIS somewhere because what's happening right now -- you know, kids who are in their parents' basement getting radicalized on the Internet. They want to join the cause. They see a bunch of dudes shooting AK-47s, running around through a town and they want to do that for Islam.

But if we show them that joining is does not mean fighting for a cause, it means a good chance you'll die, people don't typically join causes to be martyrs. They maybe willing to martyr themselves, but if they see that that chance of martyrdom is very, very high, they're less likely to join. So, that's why I think that's very imperative.

SMERCONISH: How personally difficult is it for you, having fought over there to see these ISIS gains of territory, that Americans once thought to control?

[09:50:04] KINZINGER: You know, it's devastating and frankly, it's heartbreaking. Just, you know, the Iraqi people are really good people actually. And they're folks just like our families, just want to raise kids and kids have dreams and hopes of becoming something when they grow up. It's the same in Iraq. And to see this happening is devastating.

And to know, you know, so many thousands of soldiers that gave their lives and I just had a small part of flying an airplane in Iraq and doing what I could there. It's devastating to me and devastating frankly to the family who gave up loved ones to bring this kind of freedom to Iraq that unfortunately seems to be falling through their hands.

SMERCONISH: Did you see evidence of a lack of will on the part of the Iraqis when were you there?

KINZINGER: I really didn't. You know, it took a while to organize the Iraqi military. I think we all understand we made mistake in the de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi military right after the invasion, but it seems like we put good leaders in place, we had Sunni and Shia leaders in place.

And soldiers follow good leaders. And I think that's the untold story here. People say, you know, there's not a will of the Iraqi military to fight. Maybe that's true by and large. But the Iraqi ground soldiers are out fighting. A lot of times they are running out of ammunition, they see their leaders run away.

And you know what? Even the United States military, if we saw our leaders running away, it would be hard to stay together and continue the fight. Thankfully, we have great leaders and great officers.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Kinzinger, great to finally get you on the program. Thank you for that.

KINZINGER: You bet. It was great. Thank you.

SMERCONISH: See you soon.


SMERCONISH: Coming up, with Pope Francis's approval rating at an all time high among Catholics in American, he could have a major impact on the outcome of the presidential race. I'll explain.


[09:56:17] SMERCONISH: He's pro life, concerned about climate change, against same-sex marriage and an advocate for the poor. No, he's not running for president, but this individual just might frame the debates for those who are. Pope Francis.

The combination of his upcoming trip to America, his approval rating and his passion for certain issues is sure to have an impact on the candidates. After he visits Latin America and Cuba, the pontiff comes to the United States.

In September, he'll visit Washington, he'll meet with President Obama, he'll address a joint meeting of Congress. In New York City, he'll visit the September 11th Memorial. Finally, in Philadelphia, he'll celebrate at an outdoor mass where the crowds could reach more than a million.

Get ready for wall-to-wall coverage, not only in the cities that he visits, but also around the world. And these events will unfold just as the summer has wound down and the presidential campaigns kick into high gear. The pope will arrive soon after the first debates.

The candidates will listen to the pontiff knowing that he's almost as popular now as St. John Paul ii, who in the middle of his papacy was favored by 93 percent of American Catholics.

Pope Francis currently enjoys a 90 percent favor rating among his flock. He's viewed favorably by 70 percent of all Americans. Even the vast majority of the nones, that's n-o-n-e-s, 68 percent, they like him.

No wonder that earlier this month, Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, tweeted at the pope in support of his call for equal pay for women. "Amen to this headline," she wrote. "Hope to see see more voices speaking out."

Among those who may be especially attentive to his holy word are potential and declared presidential candidates who are Catholic, Martin O'Malley, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal.

While the pope remains steadfastly pro life, and opposed to same-sex marriage, the Vatican by the way called Ireland's vote for gay marriage, a defeat for humanity, the Vatican is expected to release an encyclical by July where Pope Francis will address climate change and the poor.

Pope Francis, a former chemist before entering the seminary, has publicly endorsed the idea that human activity has contributed to climate change and he has addressed capitalism's need to, quote, "devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits."

Michael Lee, an associate professor at Fordham University, who has studied liberation theology, sees the pope as a potential game- changer. This week, he told me on radio --


MICHAEL LEE, FORDHAM UNIVERSITY: You can no longer box the Catholic vote in a U.S. conservative box. You know, here's the pope who is going to release an encyclical on climate change and the poor. This is a guy who staunchly opposed to abortion. This is a guy who has not ceded ground on same-sex union.

So, you know, Francis is just kind of breaking up this right/left box that we have. But I think especially his emphasis on social issues like poverty, like climate change -- yes, there's going to be some rethinking about what the Catholic vote is going to look like.


SMERCONISH: Because of their monolithic nature, Catholics are going to be an important constituency in 2016. One quarter of 2012 voters were Catholic.

According to the Pew Research Center, Barack Obama received 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008. That fell to 50 percent in 2012. However, Hispanic Catholics still backed Obama in droves, 72 percent in '08, 75 percent in 2012.

So, how interesting that their leader, while known for doctrine, is not himself doctrinaire.

Thanks you so much for joining me. Don't forget, you can follow me on Twitter if you can spell Smerconish. I'll see you next week.