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John King, USA

Trump Endorses Romney; Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Interview with Darrell Issa; Interview with Bob McDonnell

Aired February 02, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King reporting tonight from the historic College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Tonight, Donald Trump endorses Mitt Romney in Vegas of all places. Also, Virginia talks Newt Gingrich's vow to fight on through the Southern GOP primaries and what he would say if asked to join the Republican ticket.

And this school's new chancellor, the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, talks exclusively to us about how fast to pull out of Afghanistan and how much he agrees with his former boss's GOP critics.

We begin with today's verbal fireworks on Capitol Hill in Washington. In the face of pointed and personal attacks by House Republicans, the Attorney General Eric Holder today rejected calls for his resignation and he refused to take the blame for a program that sent U.S. guns to Mexico's drug gangs in an effort to trace gun smuggling.

Attorney General Holder says he shut down the program dubbed Operation Fast and Furious shortly after it came to his attention. He says that was after one of those smuggled guns was found at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Some Republicans accuse General Holder of covering up what he knew. Others today -- listen to this -- called him incompetent.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that the American people deserve to have an attorney general that they can trust. And for that reason, I have asked for your resignation. And I believe that because you have been grossly incompetent in the way that you have prepared before coming to Congress, I think you should resign.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Looked at fairly, I think that I have done a pretty good job. Have I been perfect? No. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I treat the members of this committee with respect? I always hope that I do. And what you have just done is, if nothing else, disrespectful.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Brian, you can see the scornful response from General Holder. You can see the skeptical and the attack from the Republican congressman. Let's listen to one more exchange here.

This is Ann Marie Buerkle of New York and the attorney general in a similar exchange. Let's listen.


REP. ANN MARIE BUERKLE (R), NEW YORK: How many more Border Patrol agents would have had to die as a part of Operation Fast and Furious for you to take responsibility?

HOLDER: I'm not claiming to be a perfect person or a perfect attorney general. I get up every day and try to do the best job that I can. I have great faith in the people who work in the department. And that kind of question I think is frankly -- and, again, respectfully -- I think that's beneath a member of Congress.


KING: Brian, how much of this was about debating the policy and who knew what when and how much of it was just personal?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, most of it, John, was about debating the policy and who knew what when, but it kind of evolved into the personal.

You just played two of the most contentious exchanges that we heard in a long time between Holder and these members of Congress. Remember this is the sixth time he's appeared before Congress regarding Fast and Furious.

There was another moment between him and that Republican congressman, Raul Labrador, around the time of that sound clip that you played between the two of them where Holder just kind of tore into Labrador saying it was along that line of questioning because Labrador had gone into this litany of what he believed was a pattern of personal deception on the part of Holder dating back to Holder's days in the Clinton Justice Department.

And Holder said something like, that's one of the worst things I have ever heard in Congress. And he said that, I don't know how you do things back in Idaho, but we don't do that here. It got very personal between the two of them, John, and it kind of hit along those themes for most of this hearing.

KING: Brian Todd reporting live from Capitol Hill. We're going to have the chairman of that committee, Darrell Issa, on the program in just a bit. Brian, thank you.

Out on the presidential campaign trail this afternoon, Mitt Romney, he found a way to change the subject away from how he feels about caring for the country's poor. How did he do that? He was endorsed by Donald Trump.


DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & CEO, TRUMP HOTELS & CASINO RESORTS: Mitt is tough, he's smart, he's sharp. He's not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love.

So, Governor Romney, go out and get them. You can do it.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life. Now, this is one of them.



KING: CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is in Washington, I bet happy not to be in Las Vegas for that one.

Candy, you know, Donald Trump is a big self-promoter. He's a reality TV star. He likes attention. When it comes to Governor Romney, does this help or hurt?

CROWLEY: Listen, can he be mercurial? Can you not always be sure what will come out of his mouth next? Absolutely. They understand that inside the Romney campaign.

But I spoke to a senior adviser there and asked him about the pluses and the minuses of having Donald Trump. And they say listen, obviously he has ties within the business community and that can help. He obviously has his own money. He's limited, of course, in direct money he can give to the campaign.

But they also brought up the Tea Party. They said, you know, when Donald Trump was out there and everyone thought he was going to maybe run for president, some of his biggest audiences were Tea Party people, particularly what this source called the hyper-conservatives.

Remember when Donald Trump was talking about the birther issue and brought all that up? He really was able to stir up those -- kind of the hard core within the Tea Party. And they think he can be valuable there. As you point out he likes the camera. And perhaps he will do some grassroots work for them. So they see him as a net plus. They definitely do.

KING: And, Candy, he had a powerful statement in support of Romney there. But let's listen to what he told you. When you interviewed back in April, he was still entertaining getting into the race and didn't seem to think as much of Governor Romney.


CROWLEY: Why would Republicans prefer you to Mitt Romney?

TRUMP: Mitt Romney is basically a small business guy if you really think about it. He was a hedge fund. He was a fund guy. He walked away with some money from a very good company that he didn't create. He worked there. He didn't create.


KING: I guess the times have changed, but he didn't seem to think so much of him back then.

CROWLEY: He didn't. He didn't.

And, listen, John, you and I have covered enough campaigns to understand how many words people have to eat when they align themselves with one person or another. I mean, it's the glory of YouTube. Since the invention of the camera and tape, this kind of thing comes up.

There was great rivalry between the Bushes and the Doles, between the Clintons and the Obamas. In the end they all are party people and they will come around. That is how at least Donald Trump is explaining this today, you know, politics.

KING: Politics, politics, politics, politics.

Our chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, thanks.

Remember to tune in to watch Candy Sunday morning on "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY."

Also campaigning out in Nevada today, Newt Gingrich dismissed the significance of Donald Trump endorsing Governor Romney. The former speaker told reporters he's amazed it's getting so much attention. Instead Gingrich still hitting Governor Romney for yesterday's remark about poor people. Romney told CNN he's concentrating on the middle class and is not that concerned about the very poor who Romney says have a safety net.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Both Governor Romney and Barack Obama seem to believe that a -- quote -- "safety net" is all the poor need. I don't believe that. What the poor need a trampoline, so they can spring up and quit being poor.


GINGRICH: So I'm for replacing the safety net with a trampoline.


KING: That's Newt Gingrich in Nevada.

In Washington today, at a time some of President Obama's critics are accusing the administration of being anti-religion, the president opened up about his Christian faith.

He told about 3,000 people at the annual National Prayer Breakfast that no matter how much responsibility we have, everyone can benefit from, in the president's words -- quote -- "turning to our creator, listening to him and avoiding phony religiosity."

The president described a 2010 meeting when he prayed with the evangelist Billy Graham as a humbling moment, when he prayed -- quote -- "from the heart."


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have fallen on my knees with great regularity since that moment -- asking God for guidance not just in my personal life and my Christian walk, but in the life of this nation and in the values that hold us together and keep us strong. I know that He will guide us. He always has, and He always will.


KING: Now to the firestorm created by the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's surprise announcement the United States will end its combat mission in Afghanistan by mid to late 2013.

After almost a full day of Republican criticism, President Obama's spokesman today tried to point out this isn't really all that much of a change in policy.

Our CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence is with us now live.

Chris, are they backtracking here?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, the Pentagon officials have certainly been trying to convince us that Secretary Panetta did not overstep his bounds, telling us that, of course, transition takes time.

But it's strange when former Afghan commander, now CIA Director David Petraeus, who's gone to great lengths to sort of distance himself from his days as the general, has to come out publicly to defend Panetta's troop announcement.

And, look, this announcement caught not only some members of the Intel and Armed Services Committees in Congress by surprise, but also some of our NATO allies as well. And some of the officials seemed to be having trouble getting their messaging straight.

Secretary Panetta seemed to suggest that the only combat American troops will be involved in would be to protect themselves, for self- defense. But a NATO official says, no, these are still going to be offensive operations, not just self-defense. And a source here at the Pentagon is telling us that we may well see combat right up to the end of 2014 -- John.

KING: And, Chris, one of the debates that always is sparked when you have a public conversation like this is, are you aiding the enemy, in this case the Taliban? What are your sources telling you? Are there concerns about that, this public discussion about timetables?

LAWRENCE: Well, there's some concern. Some have voiced some concern saying, look, if the goal was to sort of lay it out there, I guess you have done that. But they say it really sets a timeline.

And the Taliban were already feeling very confident. A recent classified military report interviewing about 4,000 of them show that they think they're winning, that they think they will still be in power come 2014. Some of our sources wondered about the effect this could have on Pakistan, that what incentive would there be for Pakistan to stop harboring some of these Taliban leaders if they know that the drawdown is going to accelerate next year?

KING: Chris Lawrence, live for us at the Pentagon tonight on this important story. Chris, thank you.

You might notice there's a rather rowdy, feisty group of students behind me. We're on the College of William and Mary tonight. It's the second oldest college, started on February 8, 1693. Thomas Jefferson was educated here. Its previous chancellors include Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O'Connor, and now starting today the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Next, Secretary Gates' reflections on his service to both Presidents Bush and Obama and a warning about drawing down too quickly in Afghanistan.


KING: We're live tonight on the College of William and Mary, a historic campus in Williamsburg, Virginia.

You see the students behind us here.

This school has a new chancellor, Robert Gates. He was the defense secretary, remember, under George W. Bush. He carried over into the Obama administration. He's starting his new job. It's a ceremonial role as the chancellor of this great university.

We had an exclusive conversation today.

I began by asking him -- and remember he was a key player in the Afghan war strategy -- what he thinks now of this word that is coming out of Washington and the Obama administration that combat, the combat in mission Afghanistan could end as early as the middle of 2013.


KING: Just yesterday, Secretary Panetta, your successor, started talking about when we would get out of Afghanistan. And some say that he accelerated the timetable by saying combat operations would end in 2013. They're trying to say today, no, if the goal is to be finished in 2014, you have to start at one point.

Are they backtracking here? Are politics getting in the way of Afghanistan? GATES: The key I think for us is not here in the endgame to get too impatient.

We have invested too much in terms of lives and sacrifice and dollars to get too impatient just because we're tired. But, overall, the notion of a change of mission beginning in 2013 and gradual drawdowns to the end of 2014 does not represent a significant change.

KING: Do you worry about that impatience? Did you see any signs of it before you left government? You have Governor Romney on the campaign trail today saying they're naive. You have Republicans in Congress saying this is premature, that even if this is your plan you shouldn't be talking about it, it helps the Taliban.

GATES: No, I think we have been talking about it; we have been talking about it ever since the 2014 date was established, ever since the president announced some time ago his decisions in terms of beginning to bring out the surge.

I mean, the reality is the surge will have lasted longer in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq. And it was intended to be a surge, not a permanent increase. So I think this notion of a gradual drawdown is consistent with the decisions that I participated in.

I just hope people don't get in too big a hurry as part of that drawdown and that the pacing is determined by the conditions on the ground.

KING: Another interesting conversation in recent days has been the president talking publicly during an Internet forum about drone attacks in Pakistan. And there are a lot of people saying, whoa. Of course, we know they're happening. They have been happening for some time, but that, A., for the status of the relationship, which is fragile, and, B., just for protecting covert operations, the commander in chief shouldn't be talking about those things.

Should he?

GATES: Well, the reality is, since the beginning, the commander in chief can talk about whatever he wants to. The rules that apply to other people...


KING: Do you think he should be?

GATES: Well, I'm not going to second-guess him.

But I will say this. Beginning with the raid that took out bin Laden, I mean, that Sunday afternoon, we sort of gave each other a blood oath that we would not reveal the details of the operation. And it all began to spill out the very next day. So that was very disappointing to me.

I think we need to be very careful about how we talk about these things publicly, because they are instruments that we use in a lot of different circumstances.

KING: The president in his State of the Union address spent most of it on domestic policy. But he's very mindful of some of the things being said about him by the Republicans who want his job.

And the president said this. I want you to listen.


OBAMA: America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about.



KING: Governor Romney, Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum, all of the remaining Republicans except Ron Paul say America is in decline, America's influence around the world is waning. Who's right, the president of the United States or those Republicans?

GATES: So, what are we talking about? Are we talking about relative role economically in the world? Because that's been going down for 60 years. It was an unnatural situation to begin with.

If we're talking about military power, I think that's ridiculous. Our military power has nothing comparable to it anywhere in the world or any combination of nations that come anywhere close to our military power.

Our influence, I think that wanes and waxes, depending on the international environment. The one constant is that they see us, as Madeleine Albright once put it, as the indispensable nation. Nothing gets done internationally without American leadership. I don't think that's changed.

KING: This is Governor Romney, who says essentially, when it comes to foreign policy, President Obama, a president you served, is soft.


ROMNEY: I'm talking about people like Ahmadinejad and Castro and Chavez and Kim Jong-un and all the other people who threaten the world. And so he opens a hand to them. He wrote a little note to Ahmadinejad the other week. Did you see that? He said, can we get together for a little meeting?

The foreign policy of pretty please is not working terribly well.


KING: You were in the Oval Office, in the Situation Room in tense situations. Does President Obama have a foreign policy of pretty please? GATES: Well, this is the president that sent 60,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. This is the president that ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden, a number of other al Qaeda operatives over the years.

Sometimes, things get pretty heated in campaigns. But I think the reality is that there is an acknowledgement on people's part around the world that this president is willing to use military force when our needs require it.

But the idea of reaching out to our adversaries to try and get them to do what we want them to do, I don't think is inherently dangerous in and of itself. And after all, President Bush did that on a number of occasions. Nixon started this with the outreach to the Soviet Union and China.

Frankly, I wish we had a channel of communication to the Iranians, because if something goes wrong in the Gulf, we don't know who to call. We don't know how to control the escalation. And we worry that they don't know how to control it, either, because there's nobody to talk to.

So it depends on the content of the outreach. If you are saying pretty please, then that would be wrong. But I don't think this president is. I don't think any president that I worked with has ever said pretty please.

KING: You mentioned the risk of the Iranian situation and the uncertainty and the unpredictability of it. I want you to listen to Speaker Gingrich here. Here's his approach that -- how he talks about moving as quickly as possible to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with a war, which beats allowing this many to have a nuclear weapon. Those are your three choices.


KING: Are those the three choices? Or is...

GATES: Well, I think that you either get them to change their policy through a combination of economic, political and military pressures, non-kinetic, non-fighting, or they get a weapon and spark a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world, or you attack them and you start a war, the outcome of which you have no idea.

If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything in recent history, it is the unpredictability of war and that these things are easier to get into than to get out of, and, frankly, the facile way in which too many people talk about, well, let's just go attack them. I think that the newest round of sanctions potentially do have the opportunity to get the Iranians to change their minds. But this is a very, very difficult and dangerous set of choices, frankly, before us, because those who say we shouldn't attack I think underestimate the consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon.

And those who say we should underestimate the consequences of going to war. This is, I think, one of the toughest foreign policy problems I have ever seen since entering the government 45 years ago. And I think to talk about it loosely or as though these are easy choices in some way or sort of self-proclaimed, obvious alternatives, I just think is irresponsible.

KING: As you watch the Republican campaign play out, do you have a favorite?

GATES: Not going to go there.

KING: Not going to go there.

What about November? Are you going to vote for the Republican nominee, or is there a chance Bob Gates would vote for President Obama?

GATES: I think that who I vote for will remain my private business.

KING: Been a Republican all your life. Have you ever voted Democrat for president?

GATES: Absolutely.

KING: Open to doing it again?

GATES: I have always voted for who I believed was the best person.

KING: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chancellor, thank you for your time.

GATES: Thanks a lot, John.

KING: Thank you.


KING: As maybe you can see, it's a relatively balmy February night here in Virginia. But, next, if you're looking for winter, we found it.

Plus, what New England quarterback Tom Brady said that will probably cost him some fans in Buffalo.


(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) KING: You see the crowd of students here at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Welcome back. We're live in Williamsburg tonight.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And it's a safe bet that football fans in at least two cities now will be rooting against the New England Patriots in this Sunday's Super Bowl.

What are we talking about? Well, of course, we're talking about the fans of the Patriots' opponents, the New York Giants. But in addition now we're talking about Buffalo hotel owners. They're in a huff because Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called this city's hotels -- quote -- "not the nicest places in the world."

He did apologize afterward, but it probably won't help. This all came about, John, apparently because Brady was just trying to praise his own father for being dedicated and following him around the country to watch games. And then there was, as we like to call, a bit of a gaffe.

KING: Oh, well. I'm going to have Wolf Blitzer talk to Tom Brady about repairing relations between my New England and his Buffalo. We'll work all this out, Kate. We'll work all this out. We'll see you in a few minutes, Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right.

KING: Coming up today's fireworks between Attorney General Eric Holder and congressional investigators. We'll be joined by the Republican chairman of the committee, Darrell Issa. He's chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. They grilled the attorney general today. Stay with us.


KING: In this half hour, the powerful House committee chairman who says the Obama administration is not answering his questions about a fatally flawed investigation of gun smuggling.

Also tonight's "Truth" about how much Donald Trump's endorsement of Mitt Romney might mean to the voters.

And tonight's "Moment You Missed." Pushups, anyone?

House Republicans want heads to roll over a government program that sent U.S. guns to Mexico's drug gangs in what was an effort to trace gun smuggling. Some of those guns ended up killing innocent people, including a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Today the attorney general, Eric Holder, was on Capitol Hill to testify about that program, dubbed Fast and Furious. Operation Fast and Furious. And an earlier operation called Operation Wide Receiver.


REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: Have you, to your knowledge, disciplined anyone from Wide Receiver?


ISSA: Have you disciplined anyone from Fast and Furious?

HOLDER: No, I have not as yet.


KING: The man you just saw there, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, Darrell Issa, joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Mr. Chairman, thanks for joining us on a busy day. This is not the first time you've had the attorney general up, not the second time you've had the attorney general up. Has he fully answered your questions now? And if the answer is no, what's missing?

ISSA: Well, certainly the attorney general was a cooperating witness today. And I'm very -- very happy he came and he said the hearing was fair.

This was the third time or the third different committee that he had participated in questions related to Fast and Furious and under his leadership what has or hasn't been done. The challenge we have is that there are a number of key assistants, deputy assistant secretaries or so on, or attorney generals, including Lanny Breuer, who clearly had culpability.

Lanny Breuer knew that the guns were walking in 2010. He advocated for them continuing walking even February 4th of 2011. And quite frankly, he's still there. He still has his job. And we -- we are concerned that there hasn't been the kind of house cleaning necessary to make sure people with this flawed judgment aren't still there.

And I for one have made it clear, my problem with Eric Holder is you can't wait a year, wait for the I.G. before you do things if, in fact, you have people whose decision process was wrong or who failed to do their jobs. We still think there's a lot of culpability in Washington in Justice.

KING: Well, Mr. Chairman, we're talking on a Thursday evening. On Tuesday you sent the Justice Department a letter in which you said if the attorney general failed to provide you with certain documents requested you would, quote, "have no alternative but to move forward with proceedings to hold you in contempt of Congress."

Is contempt still a possibility or are you satisfied now?

ISSA: Well, you know, it's always one of the tools. And the attorney general today still said that he felt his policy, although not supported by the Constitution, of not supplying internal deliberation, things that they said except in the rare case of this false letter, was appropriate. We disagree with him. We offered to have some additional discussions on it. We have been told there will be some additional documents coming. Our committee has been patient. We've gone through the process of asking plus subpoenaing. We intend to continue working with Justice. But we wanted him to know that we really did believe we had an obligation to get to the bottom of all aspects of Fast and Furious, and if you will, I'm not going to use the word cover-up but the misstatements that came through after the fact that now have been recanted. We believe we will have some success working with the attorney general.

But ultimately, we need to make sure that there are steps taken to make sure this can never happen again. And a letter alone saying we don't walk guns isn't sufficient for the American people. It's certainly not sufficient for the family of Brian Terry who lost their son, their brother, their cousin, in this Border Patrol agent you mentioned in the lead up. So we have to also get answers there to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

KING: Are you troubled at all about the confrontational tone between some of the Republican members with the attorney general? He was leaning on his elbow at one point. He clearly looked a bit scornful. Dan Burton called his testimony baloney, and he had that confrontation with Raul Labrador of Idaho. I want you to listen to the attorney general's response in that particular case.


HOLDER: Do I treat the members of this committee with respect? I always hope that I do. And what you have just done is, if nothing else, disrespectful. And if you don't like me, that's one thing. But you should respect the fact that I hold an office that is deserving of respect.


KING: Do you think some of your members crossed the line, Mr. Chairman? Did they?

ISSA: Well, clearly the attorney general was very sensitive to comments or statements -- literal statements that will go back related to the Marc Rich pardon under Bill Clinton. It was not within the -- if you will, the primary set of questioning. Mr. Labrador (ph) tried to use those to say, "Don't you have a problem of not reading things," which is what the statements were in the past. There was some merit to it. It was pretty tough questioning. The attorney general didn't like it.

But overall, the attorney general said that the hearing was fair. I believe he believes he was treated overall with respect by all the members. But it was tough. It was a tough hearing. This is a tough subject in which 2,000 weapons have gone walking, gone missing. They're now in the hands of drug cartels. And Americans and Mexicans are less safe. So I think for a tough hearing it was done generally well. One of the things I need to make you aware of is every member of Congress, left and right of me on the dais, has an absolute right to use their five minutes in any way they see fit. So that's something that members who come before the Congress understand. And sometimes it's tough from the other side of the aisle, too.

KING: Chairman Issa, as always, appreciate your time tonight, sir.

ISSA: Thank you, John.

KING: Take care, sir.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he's staying in the race for the Republican nomination all the way up to the party's convention in August. The former speaker is banking on a string of southern primaries. But they don't start until March.

One of those primaries in Virginia right here where I am tonight, but he did not qualify. Didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot. Well, tonight we speak with the state's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell.


KING: You're a Mitt Romney guy.


KING: Speaker Gingrich could have a rough February, but he says he's staying in no matter what, even if Romney runs the board in February. Because when you get to March you have a lot of southern states. Super Tuesday.


KING: As a southern governor, again, if you look at the polling date and dig deep into it, Speaker Gingrich says, well, governor Romney can't win in the south. He's weak in the south.

MCDONNELL: Speaker Gingrich isn't even on a ballot in Virginia, so -- and Missouri and some other states that are south. I don't buy that at all.

He just won a big southern state, Florida. He lost in South Carolina. I believe he's going to win in Virginia. I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen. I see him doing well. He's just been endorsed by Governor Haslam of Tennessee, Governor Haley in South Carolina. I think other southern governors will probably endorse him.

So I -- I see Mitt Romney being able to be very, very competitive. I think he does speak from his heart now more on the values issues. He's clearly a strong fiscal conservative.

KING: Are you of the view that a long process is healthy, makes you a stronger candidate? You could make the 2008 comparison. Obama was a stronger candidate after the long process. Or some Republicans worry because of the fissures that maybe the Tea Party, maybe evangelicals, the Republicans need more healing, that the longer it goes, potentially the weaker your candidate. What school are you?

MCDONNELL: I'd much rather get it over sooner. The sooner we have one candidate that's going to go toe to toe with President Obama. And I think, gosh, there's been what, 19 debates now? There has been plenty of airing out of the candidates' views on a number of positions. I think everybody knows where everybody stands. The debates now just reinforce some of those positions that they've already stated.

So I'd like to see it done as soon as possible. The more strength that Mitt Romney continues to show in each state, the sooner we get to that.

But that's not to say, if it is a protracted nomination process or even going to the convention, I still think we'll be in good a shape. It just shortens the playing field, because then it only leaves 2 1/2 months to go to the general elections.

KING: Well, part of that magic was Virginia. Part of that magic was North Carolina. It's hard to look at a Republican map and see a Republican winning unless they take those states back. Which is why some people say the guy sitting across from me would be a pretty good No. 2 on the ticket. Interested?

MCDONNELL: That's completely up to somebody else. I've just said if I got a call, I think any governor would say you get a call from the nominee that said you can help our party, you can help our country, of course you'd consider doing that.

But you know, I got the job held by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. And it doesn't get much better than that, John. We've got a lot of positive things we're doing. I'm chairman of the Republican Governors Association. I want to win lots of Republican governors' races this year. But if somebody called me...

KING: If somebody called you and said, "I think you can help. Convince me, Governor, that you can help me in your state and beyond." What would you say back?

MCDONNELL: Well, I'm not interviewing for the job. I'm not waiting by the phone. But obviously people looking at it from the outside say, look, it's a swing state. You've got decent approval ratings. You balanced the budget without raising taxes. You've done a lot of things to bring people together. You've got a Democrat senate, Republican house. You got a unanimous budget. Obama can't even get a budget with the Democrats in control. You're doing something a little bit different.

So I'm pretty pleased with the way we've been able to play team ball here. We turned down the rhetoric. We focused on getting results. That's why I like Mitt Romney. He's a results-oriented conservative. He's a -- he's a guy that can bring people together. And so, you know, I'll leave that up to somebody else. I'll let you experts decide whether or not you want to talk about that. Right now I got -- I got my legislature in town. I got my hands full.

KING: Governor, appreciate your time.

MCDONNELL: OK, John. Thank you. Appreciate it.


KING: Still ahead, tonight's "Truth." The impact of the Donald Trump endorsement.

Plus Newt Gingrich wants a Hollywood hunk to play him in the movies. We'll tell you who next. Don't go anywhere. We're live tonight from the historic campus at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.


KING: As circus acts go, the Donald is hard to beat.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know there's some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life. Now this is one of them.


KING: Reality TV star. As aggressive a self-promoter as you will ever meet. And now a Mitt Romney guy.


DONALD TRUMP, REAL-ESTATE MOGUL: Mitt is tough. He's smart. He's sharp. He's not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love. So Governor Romney, go out and get 'em. You can do it.


KING: Well, here's tonight's "Truth." Most endorsements don't matter much. And this one, well, it could be more trouble than help.

For starters, there's the "all politics is local" rule. Nevada votes next, and Ron Paul's campaign was quick to note that just last year Trump backed Democrat Harry Reid in a Senate race that was the Republican Party's top target. Plus, Romney critics on the right, those who question his commitment to the conservative cause, well, it's not unnoticed to them Trump recently switched from Republican to unaffiliated just in case he decide to run for president as an independent.

And for Democrats? Well, this was just too easy.


TRUMP: You're fired.

You're fired.

ROMNEY: I like being able fire people who provide services to me.


KING: Governor Romney, in public anyway, sees only an upside.


ROMNEY: Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works, to create jobs for the American people. He's done it here in Nevada. He's done it across the country.


KING: Truth is, though, many top Romney aides, well, they wince at the mention of Trump. They know he likes to talk, and now they know every time he says something off the wall, reporters will come running to Governor Romney for reaction. Team Romney, for example, can only hope the Donald doesn't again appoint himself the leader of the birther cause. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I got him to do something that nobody else could get him to do.

KING: And you -- you raised this issue of his credibility. If he has it, he should release it.

TRUMP: Absolutely.


KING: But saying no to Trump carried risks, too. He likes attention, and without a doubt, would have tried to stir up trouble for Romney had the campaign spurned the endorsement offer. So add Trump to the Romney endorsement lists.

And be certain of this truth. The Romney team's hope tonight is that what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Let's talk truth now with Torie Clarke, a veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns and the Pentagon spokeswoman in the George W. Bush administration; Democratic strategist and Obama pollster Cornell Belcher; and CNN contributor, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.

Torie, haven't seen you in a while, so I want to start with you first. If your candidate is running for president and Donald Trump calls, you say yes?

TORIE CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: You kind of cringe and go, "Yes, absolutely, come on board." And I think over the long run, well, you said in the intro there are going to be as many who like Donald Trump as don't like Donald Trump. I think it becomes a neutral overall.

KING: Alex?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the best salesman I've ever met was Sonny Bono, who knew three chords and had 10 gold records. The second best is Donald Trump, and he's the best you've ever seen at selling Donald Trump, seizing the stage. He did it today.

I think this endorsement actually does help Romney in one unique way. Newt Gingrich's argument at this point is, "Look, the outsiders are waiting for me. It's the Washington establishment that doesn't want me." Now, there's a break in the ranks. Now, the ultimate outsider, Donald Trump, the hand grenade under Washington's door, has gone over the line. And I think that actually does hurt Gingrich and it helps Romney.

KING: Cornell, I'm going to guess you're a contrarian on this one.

CORNELL BELCHER, OBAMA POLLSTER: You know, I love Alex. He's the ultimate spinner. That was really good.

Here's the problem. In our last CNN poll that we -- that we did, you know, Donald Trump's unfavorables were higher than his favorables: 54 unfavorable, 30 percent favorable.

This is not a guy who's very favored. And when you look at independent voters, it's not a guy who's beloved. It would have been interesting for Romney to have had a Sister Souljah moment, if you would, and to have rejected Trump's endorsement and really shown that he is, in fact, an outsider. He's not someone who's catering to the Tea Party. That would have shown some interesting politics and some strength.

CLARKE: But John, at least so far, so far Donald Trump is not the one running. Right? It's Romney that's the one that's running, and I actually think just to pile onto something Alex said, that, you know, Romney may benefit from the sort of mad-as-hell attitude that Trump has about a lot of things going on in the government right now, and he may actually benefit from stirring some of that up.

CASTELLANOS: The last I heard, Romney was not in the general election. He still has a playoff game to win before he goes to the Super Bowl.

BELCHER: As a Democrat, let me tell you, the only person I would have liked to have come out even more and sort of endorsed him is maybe George Bush or Dick Cheney when you look at those unfavorable numbers. KING: All right. All right. I want to shift -- I want to shirt to foreign policy. We're on this beautiful campus tonight because we spoke to its new chancellor, the former defense secretary, Bob Gates. I asked him -- he's a Republican. He served in the Obama administration, but he goes back to the Reagan administration before that as a Republican. I asked him about some of the criticism that President Obama is perhaps, these Republicans say, too willing to reach out, say to try to open the line of communication with Iran. Listen to Secretary Gates.


BOB GATES, CHANCELLOR, COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY: Things get very heated in campaigns, but I think the reality is that there is an acknowledgment on people's part around the world that this president is willing to use military force when our needs require, but the idea of reaching out to our adversaries to try and get them to do what we want them to do, I don't think is inherently dangerous.


KING: Torie Clarke, maybe he has no place in this conversation: a voice of reason in the middle of a campaign. What are we going to do?

CLARKE: It was so reassuring to hear Secretary Gates talking. He has such a calming influence, and he makes everybody kind of take a deep breath and go, "Well, right."

And I think one of the things he was trying to say, which is true, is when you're dealing with these incredible national security issues -- and he's right. What we have going on with Iran is very, very scary. You've got to have several things in the arsenal, one of which may well be reaching out to them directly, reaching out to them through third parties. At the same time, really coming down hard economically, potentially militarily.

KING: One of his points, Alex, was that maybe the Republicans should just dial it back a little bit. He thinks rhetoric on both sides, either don't use the military option or use the military option, is bad. Just let the people in charge deal with it. Is that right?

CASTELLANOS: I think actually the secretary is right. I think the Republicans are in a way lucky that this election is not about foreign policy and international affairs, because in many ways, Barack Obama has continued the policies of the previous administration.

One of the things you learn when you become president of the United States is politics is one thing, but your choices are constrained by international realities. You know, the world is a big place with powerful forces, and presidents don't have the power they do to change course as they do here with economic matters, say, in the United States, so I think Republicans overplay their hand. Politically, it's going to play that Barack Obama has made some tough, strong decisions, and that will help him. KING: Cornell, he wouldn't tell me who he's going to vote for. He said he won't get involved in the primary, but for Republicans who say President Obama is soft, he did say that remember, he is the guy who killed Osama bin Laden.

BELCHER: No. No, that's right and I'm in complete agreement with Alex on this one.

But here's the problems, the political problem as a practicing sort of politico. You know, it's hard for you to run for president without trying to undermine the president's credentials on commander in chief because it's such a big part of the job. I think some of them are going to try to keep doing that. However, I think it's a tough case to make that this guy's been soft on terrorism.

KING: Torie, Cornell, Alex, appreciate you coming in. We'll see you again soon. And folks, stay with us. Tonight's "Moment You Missed" is going to get you in shape.


KING: Kate Bolduan's back with a "Moment You May Have Missed" -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: You were traveling. I won't hold it against you if you missed this moment, John. But this is a good one, so I thought we'd bring this one to our viewers tonight.

So, first lady, she's been really making the rounds recently. She was on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Look what she's doing. Push- ups.

KING: Wow.

BOLDUAN: What do you think?

KING: Wow. I think I'm going to ask -- I'm going to ask everybody here at the College of William and Mary, they've been great to us tonight. I'm going to let them do their cheer. I'm going to have them do push-ups. We'll see you tomorrow night.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.