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U.S. Supreme Court Limits President Obama's Power to Make Recess Appointments; Australia Says Flight 370 Crew Likely Unresponsive; Maliki Welcomes Syria Strikes; Cochran Win Discussed

Aired June 26, 2014 - 13:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We start with two major decisions by the Supreme Court today, and one is a significant blow for President Obama. In a unanimous ruling, the justices sided with Congress and its power struggle with the president over recess appointments. The court decided three appointments the president made to the National Labor Relations Board during the Senate's winter break back in 2012 were not valid.

The second opinion released today involves a contentious fight over abortion protests. The court, again, unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot no-protest buffer zone on public property surrounding abortion clinics. We'll have more on that decision in just a moment.

But first, more on the ruling that has a direct impact on the White House, the Congress and the struggle over the presidential powers issue. Justice Correspondent Pamela Brown is joining us here in Washington with more. Unanimous decision, a clear setback for the president.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, it is a unanimous decision. It's being seen as a win for Congress, a defeat for the White House. Today, the justices basically saying that when the president, President Obama, appointed three people to the national labor board that it was unconstitutional. Now, the president still has a constitutional authority to appoint people when Congress is in recess. But in this case, the justices say that Senate was actually in session because of this legislative maneuver that the Republicans use. It's called pro forma session.

And today, the justices basically saying that the Senate -- the Senate can write its own rules and, therefore, they can decide when they are in session and when they are not. And here's what the -- part of the ruling says. For purposes of the recess appointments clause, the Senate is in session when it says that it is provided that under its own rules it retains a capacity to transact Senate business.

So, what's really interesting here, Wolf, is that, again, it's somewhat of a narrow ruling in that that the president still has the constitutional authority to temporarily appoint people into government positions when Congress is in recess. You know, but this is -- this is a little bit different because now the Senate Republicans can say they can be in session year round and, you know, not be in recess at all by using this pro forma session maneuver.

BLITZER: As long as they have somebody who gavels for even --

BROWN: Gavels, exactly.

BLITZER: -- 10 seconds or 15 --

BROWN: That's all it takes.

BLITZER: -- seconds a day, they are technically not in recess. That's what the Supreme Court decided.


BLITZER: The White House had said that was a sham. They really were effectively in recess and, all of a sudden, the Supreme Court says the president, you are wrong.

BROWN: Right.

BLITZER: The Congress is right.

Jonathan Turley is a professor of Constitutional law at George Washington University. What did you think of this unanimous decision?

JONATHAN TURLEY, SHAPIRO PROFESSOR OF PUBLIC INTEREST LAW, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I thought it was absolutely correct. You know, I testified on the recess appointments in front of the House Judiciary Committee at the time and said I thought they were facially unconstitutional. I didn't think this was a close question. It was surprising to me that the administration took the position it did. They were in session, technically, and the Democrats have done the same pro forma maneuvers as the Republicans did. This has gone on a long time.

What's very interesting about the opinion is that, at one point, the court actually says the recess appointment clause is not there for you to work out problems you have with Congress. And it seemed like a somewhat veiled but clear message to the president who says he's going to go it alone. He's going to circumvent Congress. The court came down very heavily on this and said, you know what? This isn't that type of clause. You know, the Congress is allowed to maneuver away to be in session. And I think what you're going to see, in terms of the blow backs, is this is going to add, as you've noted, to the growing chorus about the president's circumvention. We have the law suit that was announced yesterday by the Republicans. But there is this growing sense that the president is too far outside the lines of separation.

BROWN: And then it's --

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. I was -- because I was going to let our viewers know the White House says it's deeply disappointed in the decision although the president and the administration would clearly honor the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court. BROWN: And I think it's worth noting also that the president's viewpoint on this, the president saying that he used his constitutional authority, exercised his executive power to put these three people on the National Labor Relations Board because he claimed that Senate Republicans were holding up the nomination and stopping the work of the government. So, that was the White House argument during all of this. But, again, interesting to note that this really could -- this really could lead to more gridlock because as far as, you know, it could hold up nominations going through.

BLITZER: I want to just play for you what the Iowa senator, Chuck Grassley, he was reacting to the decision, and, not surprisingly, he was pleased.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Praise, then, today to the Supreme Court for forcing the president to confront the errors of his ways and for enforcing the constitutional structure that protects our freedom. And maybe cause him to modify that statement he made earlier this year that when Congress won't, I will because I have a pen and a phone.


BLITZER: Let's get to another decision that the United States Supreme Court decided today. Jonathan, I'll get you to weigh in on this first. They ruled that a Massachusetts law that effectively allowed a 35-foot barrier of -- at abortion clinics to where people could go protest saying that was unconstitutional, that barrier, siding with free speech, if you will. Once again, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

TURLEY: It is. We have seen a series of unanimous decisions from a divided court. I think it does reflect how outside the lines these actions laws are. The Massachusetts' law was criticized by many of us in the free speech community as being way outside the lines. Well, what happened is that the Supreme Court, a few years ago, actually approved a buffer zone.

But the Massachusetts legislators went further and extended this beyond 30 feet. And in doing so, they lost even their usual supporters like Justice Kagan who said, wow, this is a lot of space for a no-speech zone. But what's interesting about the opinion is that four of the justices were ready to basically blow away the concept of a buffer zone when it comes to speech. It was Roberts that actually rescued the left of the court from that result. If it hadn't been for Roberts, there would have been a really blazing free speech ruling that curtailed the use of buffer zones.


TURLEY: People like Kennedy have long been criticism -- critical of treating speech as something you could prohibit.

BLITZER: So, effectively, obviously unanimously, all nine justices today siding with these anti-abortion protesters who didn't like this Massachusetts law. That law is unconstitutional. We go forward from that.

Pamela, thanks very much. Jonathan Turley, --

TURLEY: Thanks.

BLITZER: -- thanks to you as well.

Let's move on to some other news we're following including the hunt for flight 370. New developments today, Flight 370 investigation officially shifting south into the uncharted depths of the Indian Ocean. The new zone unveiled today by Australian officials is pegged on a -- as a new data analysis that makes some critical new assumptions about why the Boeing 777 vanished more than three months ago with 239 people on board.

Joining us now is our Aviation Correspondent Richard Quest. Richard, these new assumptions are keyed on the likelihood the pilots suffered oxygen loss. What could've caused that?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, what the report basically says, and it's a first -- Wolf, you know, you and I have talked about this so many times. But this is a 60-page report. And it's the first full-length report that we have had into the incident. It's exactly the sort of report you would expect to get from something like the NTSB, the AAIP or the ATSB.

Now, what it says is that the characteristics of the flight, the distance that it flew, the way that it was flying, the distance -- the length down to the seventh handshake all suggest the plane was being flown on autopilot. Only autopilot would have been able to get the plane to the range of endurance and put it down to the level at which it was -- where they believe it went down.

BLITZER: And so, they believe the plane was flying for an autopilot. Once it ran out of gas, it could have continued on for at least another 100 miles or so. Is that also part of the conclusion?

What they are saying is they have now narrowed down the area looking at all the existing data and they're bringing the search area back. They have taken to the original seventh handshake where they believe the plane lost fuel or the plane ran out of fuel.

And also, Wolf, they then give a variety of scenarios. The number -- the length at which it would have glided, what power would have been needed, the range it could have flied? Now, what they are not saying, and they talk about the various scenarios, you talk about hypoxia, you talk about oxygen deprivation, but they are not saying, yet, what they believe the cause was.

Now, we should be encouraged. This is exactly the sort of detailed investigation they said they were going to have to do when they failed to find it through the erroneous pings. They've gone back to square one. They've looked at every bit of data and they've had independent teams from the U.S., the U.K., from Australia, all working on the same data and they've all come up to this new area. The downside, Wolf, unfortunately, this new area is vast. To put it in perspective, the old area was 850 square kilometers. This is 60,000.


QUEST: It's 650 kilometers long, 90 odd kilometers wide.

BLITZER: They've got a huge search ahead of them. Richard, hold on for a moment. Peter Goelz is with us, our aviation analyst, former NTSB managing director. You've gone through this report now, Peter, what's your bottom line take?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think Richard's hit it on the head. I mean, it's -- this is a report that could have come out months ago. And it gives us some real information that we've speculated about but now confirms it. And I think they -- as Richard indicated, they've given three scenarios. One where the plane, from its last primary radar, heads straight to the south, two separate ones where it swings out around the island Sumatra and then goes south. And that gives you that area the size of the state of West Virginia to search.

BLITZER: What could have caused oxygen to go away for everyone, effectively, on that plane, including the crew?

GOELZ: Well, it's still not clear, you know, whether it was an accident or done deliberately. But in any case, there are valves that could have malfunctioned. There are doors that might not have sealed properly. But in all of those cases, there would have been alerts given inside the cockpit. Remember, we can't ignore somebody turned off the transponder, somebody turned off the ACARS. That's still two facts that are hanging out there that says that this is a human event.

BLITZER: Not a catastrophic mechanical failure.

GOELZ: Not a catastrophic event.

BLITZER: All right, Peter Goelz, Richard Quest, guys, thanks very much. New information coming in. We'll continue to monitor that.

Other news we're following, a party divided. Conservative activists are howling over one senator's primary victory. Thad Cochran expanded the Republican tent. Is that good for the Republican Party? Bad for the Republican Party? Michael Amerkanisch, he's standing by to weigh in later.

The Bush and Clinton dynasties. Will Jeb Bush and, or Hillary Clinton have a go against family legacy if they run? We'll explore more, when we come back.


BLITZER: Iraq's prime minister says he didn't ask for Syria's help against the extremist militant group ISIS but he'll take it. Here's the latest on the deepening crisis in Iraq.

The prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, telling the BBC he welcomes Syrian air strikes along the border with Iraq. He says they targeted positions on the Syrian side of the border, but local authorities, local eyewitnesses say they also struck inside Iraq and killed at least 50 Iraqi civilians, many of them women and children and injured many, many others. Syria denies that.

Also today, Iraq issued a decree for parliament to convene Tuesday to begin forming a new government. The prime minister vowing to stick to that timetable. Secretary of State John Kerry calls this, and I'm quoting him now, "an encouraging move."

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, arrived in Baghdad today for talks with Iraqi leaders. They've also called for the swift formation of a new government.

The involvement of Iran and now Syria certainly complicating this already very complex and dangerous Iraq crisis. And the reports of Syrian air strikes inside Iraq raising the stakes even higher. Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, just back traveling with the secretary of state in the region. Went to Iraq twice on that visit.

What's your bottom line assessment right now with Iran getting involved directly in Iraq, Syria getting involved directly in Iraq, the U.S. sending up to 300 military advisers? What's the bottom line assessment?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it shows that this is, as Secretary Kerry repeatedly emphasized during the trip, this is not just an Iraq problem, it's a regional problem, it's a global problem. I mean by definition it is because ISIS now has a presence in two countries, Syria and Iraq, but also threatening those countries bordering. Jordan is concerned. The Saudis are concerned. Certainly Iran is concerned and very interested in Iraq's future.

You know, the question for the U.S. is, as it continues to consider what its next step is, is it willing to let Syria and Iran fill the vacuum while the U.S. decides what to do next? You know, the Iraqis have been asking for U.S. air strikes for weeks now. The U.S. still hasn't taken that step. The president's position, the secretary's position is, don't bomb until you know that bombing's going to have a positive effect on the ground. Syria, in effect, filling that void. The Iraqi - the Iranians sending weapons and equipment in as well. That -- the others are filling that void even if the U.S. -- as the U.S. decides.

BLITZER: Syria filling that void but killing a lot of innocent civilians in the process, deeply angering Iraqis as a result, although the prime minister defending - the prime minister of Iraq defending the Syrian air force, the Syrian leader, Bashar al Assad. It underscores the complexity of air strikes. Because if the U.S. were to launch air strikes, a lot of those ISIS forces, they're right in the middle of populated areas.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. Absolutely. No question. And that was one of the big negatives. We heard this from administrative officials, also from defense officials, air strikes sound like a neat option. You're 10,000 feet above the ground. U.S. troops and forces out of danger's way. But there are other dangers, civilian casualties being one. And also this ultimate question, if the Obama administration's point of view that air strikes don't fundamentally change the course of battle on the ground, they're good for drone strikes to go after individuals, but not to change the course of battle, particularly when you don't have intelligence. And that's what these 300 advisers are intended to do because when U.S. troops pulled out in 2011, we have a major deficit in terms of intelligence as a result of that.

BLITZER: Yes, but do they really believe -- and you were there traveling with the secretary, speaking to his top aides, speaking to Iraqis, getting a sense, do they really believe 300 U.S. military advisers are going to make much of a difference?

SCIUTTO: Short answer is, no, a different, but is it a definitive difference, no. And also my sense, from traveling with administration officials, State Department officials, is that this is an administration that is not in any rush to get involved militarily. They're going to take their time. They're going to be very measured about costs and benefits, this kind of thing. So even as the Syrians and Iranians perhaps are more forward leaning, that's not going to significantly change the administration's calculus.

BLITZER: They don't have much confidence, if any, in Nuri al Maliki, do they?

SCIUTTO: No, they don't. They won't say that publicly. Secretary Kerry did say publically, repeatedly, that the U.S. is not in the business of choosing or advocating for particular candidates, Maliki included. That said, you know, he made it very clear that - Kerry made it very clear that it's the U.S. priority to have an inclusive government. And I will say this. U.S. officials are not particularly confident in Maliki being the man to do that, but they say it's up to Iraqis to decide.

BLITZER: We'll see you later, 4:00 p.m. You're filling in for Jake Taper on "The Lead."

SCIUTTO: That's right. A lot of stuff on Iraq and, of course, on this big soccer game that everybody's watching, myself included.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto reporting for us. Thank you.

Iraqis fleeing the ISIS insurgency. They're joining the more than 2 million civilians who have fled the Syrian civil war. How can you help this massive refugee crisis? Go to to find out.

Uneasy partners. As militants close in on Baghdad, will the U.S. partner with Iran? To check the advance of the terrorist group ISIS, we'll get an expert's opinion.

And a southern gentleman reaches across the aisle to try to win his party primary, but some Republicans are furious with Senator Thad Cochran. Did he sell out the GOP? Michael Smerconish standing by live. He'll join us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The roar of conservatives has been deafening this week since the Republican establishment struck back with Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran's primary win over a Tea Party challenger. This (INAUDIBLE) term incumbent Republican senator managed to defeat Chris McDaniel for the GOP nomination. He did it by stitching together a coalition that included even some Democrats and African-Americans, and that has some top conservatives, especially some conservative radio talk show hosts, fuming. Let's discuss with our political commentator Michael Smerconish. He's the host of "Smerconish" that airs Saturday mornings here on CNN, also the host of the "Michael Smerconish Program" on Sirius XM Radio.

Michael, so why are these guys so angry? What's the big complaint about the Thad Cochran win? He is, after all, a conservative and he is a long-term - long-time Republican.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, "SMERCONISH": I think that they're placating their respective bases. I think that the talk radio hosts and some of the cable television presenters are giving their constituency exactly what they want to hear. And the differences, Wolf, are differences in tonality, not really in substantive political issues.

But their interests don't align with the interests of the Republican Party. Political parties exist for one purpose and that is to win elections. I went back and I took a look at that Reince Priebus autopsy. You'll remember that 100-page document from about a year ago where the GOP tried to figure out why Obama had won so decisively. And one of the points that was made is that they need to expand participation in primaries. That's what they did in Mississippi on Tuesday. I think it's in the best interest of the party and, frankly, they ought to try and figure out how they can replicate that going forward.

BLITZER: Because as far as the GOP is concerned, certainly the Republicans have a much better chance of holding on to that seat in Mississippi with Thad Cochran than they might have had - McDaniel probably would have won, but it would have been a closer race presumably. And we have seen evidence over the years of Tea Party Republican challengers beating incumbent, sort of establishment GOP incumbents, but then going on to lose in the general election.

SMERCONISH: O'Donnell, Aiken, Murdoch. I mean it's a long list of individuals that potentially McDaniel's name could have been added to that list. I agree with your assessment. In all likelihood, the GOP would have held the seat. But now I think it's a virtual certainty that they will hold the seat unless, interestingly, these Tea Party folks should decide they're so fed up with the GOP they're going to sit out the general election. I doubt that they will do that. But, you know, that's the calculus that a party needs to go through, which is quite different from the calculus of these radio hosts.

BLITZER: Yes, but I think, you know, the Democrats have to make a decision now, will they go ahead and actually get involved and help that Democratic senatorial candidate in Mississippi and put some money in there, really get involved in that campaign. I'm sure they would have done it if McDaniel would have been the Republican nominee. With Thad Cochran, I'm not so sure Travis Childress (ph) is going to get much help from national Democrats. They're going to put their money elsewhere where they think they have a better chance of either retaining or picking up a seat.

SMERCONISH: Well, I think that Childress is probably the person who was - who was most displeased apart from McDaniel on Tuesday night because he probably perceived his opportunity to win as facing the Tea Party candidate. One other observation that I would made, if people are watching this just peripherally from the sidelines, it would be easy to conclude, well, this Thad Cochran, my God, he must be an awfully liberal member of the Senate for all these conservatives to be so upset.

I pulled his most recent rating from the American Conservative Union. He had an 88 percentile voting record, which means nine out of 10 times he's giving conservatives what they're looking for. He has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Coalition, 67 percent lifetime from the Club for Growth. So he's not exactly a far left character, and you might think that if you were watching this battle play out.

BLITZER: So how angry or disappointed is conservative talk radio right now that their guy, McDaniel, didn't win?

SMERCONISH: I think that they probably were relishing the victory that they had with Eric Cantor's defeat. And, you know, I hate to say it because it's what I believe, I really don't think that their interest is the same as the GOP. I think that their interest is one of driving the ratings of a small but very loyal constituency without an eye toward whether they want to win the thing ultimately. The Republican Party can't have that kind of a focus. The Republican Party doesn't exist to be an ideological vessel. They're not there to spread a conservative message. The GOP, like the Democratic Party, is there for one purpose and that's to win elections.

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, thanks very much for joining us.

I want to remind our viewers, "Smerconish" airs Saturday mornings, 9:00 a.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

Just ahead this hour, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, possible contenders for 2016? We'll take a closer look at how family legacy might affect their political policies.

Also ahead, the IRS official at the center of the scandal over the agency's targeting of Tea Party groups is in the hot seat again. We're going to tell you about some new e-mails when we return.