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News Conference Following Obama Speech on Guns; U.S. Servicemember Killed in Afghanistan; Saudi/Iranian Tension Escalating, Threatens to Destabilize Region. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 5, 2016 - 13:30   ET

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


[13:30:00] JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, no I would not describe it as a two-track process, but a process whereby attorneys at the Department of Justice were looking for ideas that would address the problem that the we have identified which is that right now, it is too easy for the people who shouldn't be able to get guns to acquire them. And it is too often the guns fall into the wrong hands, and we need to do more to keep that from happening, and keeping it from happening would make our community safer. That is the problem that the lawyers at the Department of Justice were focused on trying to address, but they wanted to be sure that any of the prescriptions that they put forward would be well within the president's legal authority as the president is the head of the executive branch.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Finally, can you describe for us any other time when you have seen a president be as physically emotional as he was today? It is -- sort of goes against everything that we know about the no drama Obama persona stereotype, and issue that has moved him so visibly moved today.

EARNEST: Well, Darlene, the president has talked before about how the violence at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012 was the saddest day of his presidency. That is saying something. He has served as president now for seven years now. And the president was quite emotional in speaking in this room in this podium on that day. I think that the president explained it for himself that even now more than three years later that the thought of those first graders being massacred is terribly sad and really tragic. It is one that is emotional for the president of the United States who also happens to have two daughters. I think that the emotional reaction of the president even three years later, it is familiar to millions of Americans across the country who particularly parentally who envision their own kids in school. I think it is a very emotional issue, and a terribly tragic situation, and one that I think that it does a lot to animate the president's determination to try to do something about it. And he has been profoundly disappointed that despite this tragedy, that Congress has not felt the same obligation to try to do something about it. But I think that the president's announcement of 23 executive actions about a month or so after that terrible incident was pretty clear evidence of the president's determination to try to keep guns out of the wrong hands. I think that even three years later, new set of executive actions that the president announced today are a vivid illustration of the president's ongoing determination to try to keep guns out of the wrong hands. OK? Aisha?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: More on the gun guidance. Is the change as far as the background checks and ensuring that the dealers on the Internet and gun shows and other places that they are adhering to the background check, and is that change contingent on having 200 new ATF agents or investigators to enforce it, because it is seeming unlikely for Congress to approve funding for those measure measures, and is that contingent of getting the 200 new measures?

EARNEST: I think that one of the most highly seen indications is that many of the statements criticizing the president's executive actions that littered all of your in-boxes today, have noted the need for the federal government to more effectively enforce the law that is on the books. And if the Republicans were serious about that notion, why wouldn't they support hiring more officers to do exactly that? So it is hard to take into account the Republican excuses when they are not willing to back up the proscriptions that they feel is going to help solve this.

But to answer your question, no, it is not contingent to hire more agents. It is on the book, and says that anybody who is engaged in -- selling firearms, they have to do a background check before their customers can purchase a weapon. And the ATF will enforce the law accordingly, and those engaged in the business of selling firearms who do choose to go without a license and do not force their customers to undergo the background check are going to be subject to a substantial criminal penalty. This is a statute that carries with it a penalty of up to five years in prison, and fine of $250,000, and this is a serious law that the ATF is committed to seriously enforcing and the president has suggested that we should devote greater resources to enforcing the laws that are on the books. Again, it is a position that the Republicans themselves have advocated as recently as today. So, we would certainly call on the Republicans to back up the news releases with actual legislative action.

[13:35:46] UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And when would the enforcement begin? And Attorney General Lynch said that there is an educational period, and is there a point in this year when there is a crackdown or a -- when exactly does this enforcement start.

EARNEST: And certainly, the guidance will begin to be implemented today, and that is one of the benefits of the proposal that these actions -- that are not subject to a protracted rule-making process, but rather that changes that can be implemented today. As to how it is enforced down the line, you have to check with either the attorney general's office or somebody at the ATF who can give you the clarity about how exactly that is going to be taking place.

OK. Mary?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Have you had any indication that any Republicans are willing to work with you on the funding issues and any cause for optimism given as you say the president's proposals are in line with what they have previously supported? EARNEST: No, but again, we look forward to Republicans actually

backing up the promises that are contained in the news releases with actual legislative action. Recognize that for this Congress, it is a novel concept, but it shouldn't be.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And given that many are predicting that there are challenges in the courts, how optimistic are you that the actions will be becoming a reality when the president is in office?

EARNEST: Well, I did note the reaction from the NRA's spokesperson to the announcement that seemed to downplay the significance of the executive actions. I'm not an attorney, and wouldn't play one on TV, but it certainly seems it is going to be hurting their legal case that the actions are going to be stopped and that it is a classic example of presidential overreach and the NRA is now claiming it is no big deal. So I have more confidence in the legal case based on that public reaction than I did before.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president has admitted that the comprehensive reform is not likely while he is in office, and now it seems that you have exhausted the executive options here. What will we see from him in the rest of the year? Is he going to be continuing in the coming months to kind of sort of rally more public is support for this or what will we see going forward? What more will we see?

EARNEST: You will see a budget proposal coming later in the year that the will reflect some of the priorities in the day. As Aisha mentioned, you will see the steps taken by law enforcement to enforce the law consistent with the guidance that has now been put forward, and we are hopeful to have the additional law enforcement resources that we can devote to that task. And, yes, I would anticipate that you are going to see the president speak out publicly with passion on this issue. That could come as soon as the president's nationally televised town hall meeting that he doing with CNN Thursday night. I would not be surprised if he makes an appearance in the State of the Union address that is covered by all of the networks next Tuesday.

Jordan?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There is Josh Earnest, the White House secretary, reminding us that one week from today, the president is going to be delivering the State of the Union address, an address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. And this Thursday night, the president is going to be joining Anderson Cooper for an exclusive one-hour town hall on the gun control taking place in George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., beginning at 8:00 p.m. right here on CNN.

The president being very emotional today. And you heard the press secretary, Josh Earnest, say he is very passionate about this issue. And you will see more of that coming up on the town hall Thursday at 8:00 p.m.

[11:39:42] And now, more news. An American killed in Afghanistan, and we will tell you who is claiming responsibility for the attack that killed him, coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We are breaking news involving U.S. troops in Afghanistan. One U.S. servicemember confirmed dead after a medical helicopter was fired on in Helmand Province. The U.S. military says that the helicopter experienced trouble and was hit by a mortar while on the ground. The military spokesman stressing the helicopter was able to take off after it was attacked, was not shot down.

We will bring in retired General Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. Army general, former assistant secretary of state; and also joining us, our CNN global affair analyst, Kimberly Dozier.

General, what does it sound like happened?

GEN. MARK KIMMITT, RETIRED U.S. ARMY & FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, we have a number of troops performing an advice, assist and, in some ways, accompany mission with the Afghan national security forces. It looks like they got into a fire fight, we got a wounded soldier, possibly dead at that point, and we sent in a medevac helicopter to bring him home, and he possibly died on the way back, and the Taliban were waiting.

BLITZER: And there are 10,000 troops, Kimberly, in Afghanistan, Kimberly, a part of the NATO contingent, and 2,000 or 3,000 members of NATO in Afghanistan right now, and now a lot of these are Special Operations forces. And you have been embedded with them, and they have been having serious risks now, especially since the Taliban is surging, and not only at what is remaining of al Qaeda, but ISIS is gaining strength in Afghanistan as well?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Yes, 3,000 Special Operations forces in Afghanistan. Most of them do the training mission back on base, but some of them accompany small number of Afghan forces. This mission was Afghan commandos probably trying to do something like clear out a town. Marjah was the centerpiece of the fight three years ago, and so now what they are going to do is to provide the backbone to these operations, and the communication satellite links to help the forces to be more effective, but it puts them in the line of fire. So we have families waiting for the knock at the door to see if it was their person who was lost or injured.

[13:45:22] BLITZER: General, why is the Taliban gaining strength right now?

KIMMITT: Well, it is a combination of issues. Number one, the Afghanistan forces are not ready, and they see U.S. pulling out, and they see strength coming from their side and weakness from NATO, and they take advantage of the situation.

BLITZER: And the peace talks, Kimberly, that were supposedly taking place, are they still continuing?

DOZIER: Well, they keep talking about getting them started again, but from the Taliban point of view, why join up? Why sacrifice the influence by offering to be part of government especially challenged by ISIS. General John Campbell, who commands forces in Afghanistan, says around 1,000 ISIS followers in Afghanistan right now, and they are drawing away any of the extreme elements of the Taliban who don't want to negotiate. And so from the Taliban's point of view, it is better to keep fighting, and keep your forces together, and to win that battle for extremist hearts and minds.

BLITZER: And what has clearly been a recent development is the surge of ISIS in Afghanistan right now. This represents potentially a major, a major strategic problem.

KIMMITT: Well, as many ways when al Qaeda came in early 2000s they took advantage of the Taliban taking over the control, and they found sanctuary and safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban controlling more land, as Kimberly reminded me, in 2001. They are winning.

BLITZER: General Kimmitt, thank you.

Kimberly, thanks to you as well.

And now, more countries are backing Saudi Arabia and cutting their ties with Iran. And we will talk to a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia in a moment to see if things can be cooled down or if they are about to get a whole lot worse.

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[13:50:41] BLITZER: The fallout over Saudi/Iran tensions clearly growing. Kuwait says it's recalling it's ambassador from Iran. It's the latest country to side with Saudi Arabia in an escalating and dangerous crisis that's threatening to further destabilize the Middle East. Tensions erupted over the weekend after the Saudis executed an outspoken Shiite cleric. They also executed more than 40 al Qaeda terrorists, most of them, by the way, Sunni. Iranian protesters retaliated by torching and raiding the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Let's bring in our CNN international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, joining us from Saudi Arabia. Also joining us, Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Nic, what's the latest there where you are because there's clear concern the situation could spiral out of control.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It doesn't seem to be de-escalating. The officials I have talked to today say Iran is meddling in Saudi Arabia in its internal affairs. They feel its pressures at the border to the south, Iraq to the north, and Syria to the north as well. What I heard today tells me from the officials I have spoken to that they will continue this current attitude towards Iran. They feel Iran was caught off guard by the execution of this Shiite cleric who Saudis say was fermenting terrorism in the country. They will stand by their current position. They say they will change their attitude to Iran if it stops medaling in their internal affairs. But today, over the past 48 hours, you have Saudi Arabia cutting economic ties with Iran, stopping flights between the two countries. Bahrain following suit on that, Sudan, United Arab Emirates. Kuwait, we have seen today as well following suit and diminishing the diplomatic contact. So it doesn't fool that it's isolating itself here if the rest of the world is telling it to tamp this down and get on and make up with Iran -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Ambassador Jordan, give us the big picture, worst case scenario. You're a student of that region.

ROBERT JORDAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SAUDI ARABIA: You have to start worrying about the Strait of Hormuz. This is an area where escalation can occur. It can remind you of what went on before World War I with the Zimmerman telegram and the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. Misplaying one's hand in what seems to be a minor skirmish can become a major squirm you shall very easily. We have to worry about that. We have to worry about the Saudi mind set, which is a feeling of complete encirclement (ph) by the Shiite Iranian movement. They feel abandoned by the United States and they look at the overthrow of Mubarak, embracing the Muslim Brotherhood by the United States, which is like embracing al Qaeda as far as the Saudis are concerned, the red line in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Iranian testing of missiles with no reaction. I think they feel that now they are on their own. They are acting out the best they can. They are not practiced in leading the Muslim world in this regard. They are going to make mistakes. I would not have gone forward with this execution, but now they have, I think they are feeling supported by their Sunni Muslim brothers. And this is an area where I think the UAE, in particular, can play a role. They're a more moderating force and they have the same concerns about Iran. They have taken a more moderate view in dealing with the crisis. I think they can be helpful. I think Russia and the United States are going to have to counsel with the Saudis and the Iranians to try to minimize concerns on both sides.

I do note that most of the Iranian leadership has condemned the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate. The one missing person is the Ayatollah, who has condemned the execution of Sheikh al Nimr but has not condemned the attacks on the embassy and consulate.

BLITZER: Nic, how strained is the U.S./Saudi relationship right now.

[13:55:16] ROBERTSON: It is strained. You have a new king. A year ago we were asking, a new king comes to power. His young son becomes the defense minister, as we see them at war in Yemen and backing rebels inside Syria. This is a very young person to be in charge of the defense ministry. So we were asking ourselves a year ago when the king came to the throne what king was he going to be like. We have seen this war waged in Yemen. There have been attempts of peace talks. You have seen a very tough series of executions over the weekend sending tough messages to Iran, sending tough messages to al Qaeda and ISIS that their presence won't be tolerated inside Saudi Arabia. If we wind the clock back two years, perhaps King Abdullah wouldn't

have made these same steps. He had a much more experienced and long- serving and respected foreign minister in his sight. So the leadership line up has changed in Saudi Arabia, but the mood in the region has changed, the situation the region has changed. So all of these things combine together for that sense of, are the right steps being taken can there be misunderstanding for these interpretations, and absolutely what the ambassador was talking about there I have heard from other Saudis here on the periphery of the diplomatic circle saying they sense that this region is at a tinderbox situation, as Europe was in 1914 when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. One major assassination in this region could tip the balance towards a much deeper conflict -- Wolf?

BLITZER: It's a chilling scenario that both of you unveil. I've been hearing the same kind of analysis from top officials here in Washington. Very worrisome development all around.

Ambassador Jordan, thank you.

Nic, thanks to you as well.

That's it for me. I'll be back at 5:00 p.m. eastern in "The Situation Room."

NEWSROOM with Brooke Baldwin starts right after a quick break.

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