GWEN IFILL: Now to politics.
President Obama jump-starts a heated political debate surrounding the building of an Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.
For weeks, the White House avoided comment.
WHITE HOUSE SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think this is a -- rightly a matter for New York City and the local community to decide.
GWEN IFILL: But, on Friday evening, at the annual White House dinner marking the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the president weighed in, instantly igniting the essentially local issue into a national debate.
U.S PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.
BARACK OBAMA: And that includes...
BARACK OBAMA: That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.
GWEN IFILL: It is the location of the proposed $100 million Islamic center that is at issue. As planned, it would stand just two blocks from Ground Zero.
Republican Representative Peter King of New York, among others, said the president missed the point.
REP. PETER KING (R-N.Y.), Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member: No one is saying there's not a right to build the mosque. But the fact is, with rights go responsibilities. And it's just incredibly insensitive to be constructing a 13-story mosque literally in the shadows of Ground Zero.
GWEN IFILL: Less than 24 hours after his initial comments, Mr. Obama sought to clarify his remarks while traveling in Florida.
BARACK OBAMA: I wasn't commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.
GWEN IFILL: But, by weighing in on the controversy at all, the president sparked a firestorm of debate. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said today the mosque should be relocated.
And at least one Republican congressional candidate, this one in Florida, has cut a television ad.
RICK SCOTT (R), Republican Gubernatorial candidate: Mr. President, Ground Zero is the wrong place for a mosque.
GWEN IFILL: And Senator John Cornyn said the president is out of touch.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): Washington, the White House, the administration, the president himself seems to be disconnected from the mainstream of America. And I think that's one of the reasons people are so frustrated.
GWEN IFILL: Independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has supported the project, defended the president's position today.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), Mayor of New York: Muslims are a -- as much a part of this city and this country as Americans of any other faith. And they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as anyone else. And if we shout down a mosque and community center because it is two blocks away from the site where freedom was attacked, I think it would be a sad day for America.
GWEN IFILL: Also today, a White House spokesman said the president was driven by constitutional obligations, not by politics.
Well, now for two differing points of view on this, we are joined by former Congressman and Republican candidate for governor in New York Rick Lazio, and by Teaneck, New Jersey, Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin, who is a Democrat.
Welcome to you both.
Mayor Hameeduddin, I want to start with you, because you were at that dinner at the White House on Friday night. And when the president made those remarks, did you agree with him about the right, and did you understand what he said the next day, the distinction he made about the wisdom?
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN (D), Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey: Well, good evening.
Yes. We were surprised. As a Muslim, we were willing to give him a pass on this issue, because, like most Muslim Americans, it's about jobs and the economy. I think that there is an issue that comes up about the mosque being built in Lower Manhattan.
But, you know, I thought that these issues were settled a long time ago with the Religious Land Use Protection Act, as well as the First Amendment. So, rather than talk about this, you know, I'm using this opportunity to talk about jobs, the economy and what we're going to do, where we can agree with Republicans on what we can do to build America and keep America safe and prosperous again.
GWEN IFILL: And I will give you the opportunity to do that.
Congressman, I guess, former Congressman Lazio, do you -- did you get the distinction the president was making between the right to build and the wisdom to build?
RICK LAZIO (R), New York Gubernatorial Candidate: You know, I think he's trying to have it both ways, Gwen.
What I have been calling for really are two things. One is transparency. I think it's important that, if the developers of this mosque, Islamic center, whatever it is being called, really in the shadow of the worst terrorist attack in American history were sensitive to the feelings of the people that have lost loved ones in 9/11, they would be meeting with these people and they would be looking at alternatives to that.
In fact, Governor Paterson had offered the developers an opportunity to move to a different area, and it was rejected out of hand. So, there's a certain defiance, it seems to me, about the need to put it right there. It's not in a residential neighborhood. This is in an area that is so close to Ground Zero that the existing building was damaged by the landing gear of one of the planes who attacked it.
And the second point that I make, Gwen, is, let's have open books. Let's have transparency. This Cordoba Initiative, which is what they call it, has about $18,000 right now. They're proposing to build a $100 million mosque. The cost of the purchase of the property is in excess of $5 million.
Now we're finding out that they -- they need the property next door, which is utility property, for another several million dollars. Where is this money coming from? Who is behind this?
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lazio -- Mr. Lazio, but if I can just ask you about the president's statement particularly and whether the president should have been involved in this, in talking about it, do you agree with him when he says that they have the right to build that facility?
RICK LAZIO: I think it was -- I think it was right for the president to get involved. I think he came at this from the wrong direction.
I wouldn't have come out where President Obama came out, obviously. You know, I feel that this mosque should -- the first thing we should be saying here is that the attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, of New York, who has jurisdiction over registered charities, which is what this is, has a responsibility to make inquiry and to have, again, the transparency about where this funding is coming from.
People seem to be missing that. And I say also, with all due respect to the president, that that issue should have been raised by the president. So, you know, to say that it maybe shouldn't be here, but there's a right to have it there, I think, confuses the issue.
The issue is, do we care more about the feelings of the people, the families that have lost loved ones? These are civilians. We lost 3,000 civilians, innocent civilians, on 9/11.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Can I weigh in here?
RICK LAZIO: How quickly many people forget about that, though.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Can I weigh in here?
GWEN IFILL: Absolutely.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Can I weigh in here, please?
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mayor, go ahead.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Yes, I mean, I think, as -- Mr. Lazio has said it correctly, where he put the, you know, the onus on Governor Andrew Cuomo, or Attorney General Cuomo.
Mr. Lazio is only involved in the issue because he has -- if you Google his name today, he's looking for money for his campaign. He says he wants to cut taxes, but he doesn't have any ideas of where he's going to cut those -- cut jobs or cut spending.
Mr. Lazio is using this opportunity to whip Muslims and to use us as a -- because we're not politically viable, we're not politically active, and to prey on the most weakest -- the weakest part of society.
GWEN IFILL: But, Mr. Mayor...
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: And here's the thing.Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Well, you had said that you thought that you would rather be talking about the economy. To what extent is the president's weighing in on this is a distraction from the issues that Democrats want to be talking about?
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: The president weighed in on it. He made his constitutional argument. And look at how he transitioned away from it the next day, because he didn't want to get stuck in the mud.
That's what ends up happening is, you talk about an issue. The next thing you know, everybody wants to talk about the issue and then you get stuck in the mud and you can't govern. The president has to worry about Afghanistan, Iraq, has to worry about unemployment, has to worry about stimulus two, has to worry about a Republican Congress, that the only thing that they know how to do is blame Democrats for everything.
And he's cleaning up the mess that the Republicans made. What ends up happening is...
RICK LAZIO: Gwen, can I jump in here?
GWEN IFILL: I will be right back with you in a minute, Mr. Lazio.
RICK LAZIO: OK.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think that Harry Reid, Mr. Mayor, and David Paterson, two Democrats, are correct in saying that this site should be moved?
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Look, the issue of the site being moved is an issue of law and due process. And whether the site is there or not, that's not the issue right now.
The issue is the economy and taxes. And Mr. Lazio doesn't want to talk about those things. He knows that this polling -- polling shows against this mosque is 70 percent against. He knows that, you know, the stop Islamization of America and all these little hate groups that he affiliates himself with will get him fund-raising opportunities.
So, what he would like for me is not to worry -- not practice my religion. He would like me to leave this country. But I'm as American as apple pie. And that's the question.
Mr. Lazio, what would you like to do about the economy? Talk about the economy.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me allow Mr. Lazio to speak.
RICK LAZIO: Can I jump in here now? Because...
RICK LAZIO: Because, you know, this is an effort by the mayor to just attack me personally for a view and a position that 60 to 70 percent of Americans and New Yorkers hold.
So, he's absolutely wrong. If you want to know where I stand on taxes, Mr. Mayor, you can look at my congressional record, where I consistently and always voted for lower taxes, was a sponsor of a bill to lower taxes, was on the Budget Committee that wrote the first balanced budget in a generation.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lazio?
RICK LAZIO: And if you want to know where -- and if you want to know where -- more about -- about where I am on these things, maybe you need to do a little homework and go on Lazio.com and figure out my...
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: I did. It said you were broke. It said you had $600,000. And it said you had $600,000.
GWEN IFILL: Hello? Hello, gentlemen? Hello? Hello?
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, I'm still here.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Lazio, I really don't want to...
RICK LAZIO: Let's get back to the issue.
GWEN IFILL: This isn't a discussion about your campaign, even though I did give you the opportunity to respond.
RICK LAZIO: Right.
GWEN IFILL: But I do want to bring you back to this subject.
And part of this subject -- we heard Newt Gingrich say today, for instance -- or over the past several days -- he said this was a question of Islamic triumphalism. He also said that if a Nazi had been allowed -- would be -- wouldn't be allowed to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum.
Do you agree -- or do you agree where with Mr. Gingrich's characterizations of this debate?
RICK LAZIO: Well, I think we need to be careful here.
We have got Joe Lieberman, a Democratic senator, Harry Reid, one of the most liberal senators in the United States Senate, who are opposed to this Ground Zero mosque. It's not a Republican or a Democratic issue. As much as -- as people on the other side would like it to be a partisan issue, it is not a partisan issue.
Americans from all philosophical backgrounds feel the same way about this? This is an inappropriate location.
GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with Mr. Gingrich?
RICK LAZIO: And there needs to be transparency.
GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with Mr. Gingrich?
RICK LAZIO: Well, I said, Gwen, my position all along has been, let's open the books. Let's find out where this money is coming from.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Answer the question, Rick.
RICK LAZIO: Well, whether there are foreign governments or militant organizations that are funding this. I mean, I -- my positions stand for themselves.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: And that's a question for the FBI.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mayor, please, allow him to finish. Mr. Mayor, please allow him to finish.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Yes, ma'am. OK.
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead, Mr. Lazio.
RICK LAZIO: Gwen, once -- once again, I have said all along this is not about religion. We have over 100 mosques in New York City. Nobody is saying that there's anything wrong with having a mosque or that there should be any limits on mosques in the city, that there should be 102 or 103.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: And how many have you visited? How many have you visited? Zero.
RICK LAZIO: Would you please stop interrupting me? I didn't interrupt you, Mr. Mayor, with all due respect.
The question here is really whether or not we should feel -- feel safe. This is about safety and security. This is why the Anti-Defamation League, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Governor George Pataki, who were both down there on that day on 9/11, all are on the same page. All support the same position I have.
RICK LAZIO: This is not about religion. This is about what's right, what's ethical, what's decent, what's fair. And from a standpoint of safety and prudence...
RICK LAZIO: ... let's open up the books. Let's make sure...
RICK LAZIO: ... nothing to hide.
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, we have time for a very brief answer for both of you on this final question. I get the feeling that we already know the answer -- and I will start with the mayor -- which is, how much is this a distraction and a political football, this issue, rather than an argument about the merits of this?
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: This is 100 percent distraction, if you look at the polling.
It's, don't talk about the economy. Don't talk about jobs. Don't talk about failed policies. Let's talk about blaming Muslims for everything. Look, I don't like when people burn the American flag. But I will defend their right to do it. And as much as it pains me about these things, this is what makes America America. Rick Lazio is against the Constitution.
GWEN IFILL: Final word from...
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Rick Lazio...
GWEN IFILL: OK. We're going to allow Mr. Lazio to have the final word.
RICK LAZIO: Thank you. Thank you very much, Gwen.
So, I think the point is, the imam who wants to build this said that America was responsible for the attacks on 9/11 and that Osama bin Laden was created in the USA. That, in itself, ought to be enough for us to want to know who is behind this mosque and where the money is coming from. And that's all I have ever been asking.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: I agree with you. The FBI should look into it.
RICK LAZIO: It's the same position, again, the ADL has and -- and -- and other people have.
Now we're asking Andrew Cuomo to do his job. And if we -- if Andrew Cuomo does his job as the attorney general...
GWEN IFILL: OK.
RICK LAZIO: ... and forces these books to be opened up...
GWEN IFILL: OK.
RICK LAZIO: ... we will have much less of a controversy.
GWEN IFILL: We're going to leave this.
Mr. Mayor and Mr. Lazio, thank you both very much.
MOHAMMED HAMEEDUDDIN: Good evening. Thank you.
RICK LAZIO: Thank you, Gwen.