MS. IFILL: Real crime intrudes on real politics, plus the news grows tighter on Assad, Syria, tonight, on “Washington Week.”
Seventy one people wounded or killed in a mass shooting in Colorado, the nation in shock recoils.
And the presidential candidates, hammering at each other only yesterday, cancel speeches and yank their ads off the air, trying to make sense of the senseless.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So again, I’m so grateful that all of you are here. I am – I am so moved by your support, but there’re going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R) [Presumptive Republican Nominee for President]: And I join the president and first lady and all Americans in offering our deepest condolences for those whose lives were shattered in a few moments, a few moments of evil in Colorado.
MS. IFILL: But that doesn’t mean the campaign has stopped, as Democrats insist that Mitt Romney talk more about his wealth.
NARRATOR: Tax havens, offshore accounts, carried interest. Mitt Romney has used every trick in the book.
MS. IFILL: And Republicans make the case that the president is out of touch.
MR. JOHN SUNUNU: And I wish this president would learn how to be an American.
Ms. IFILL: Meanwhile, the U.S. and the U.N. work to force Syrian President Assad from power as the civil war there builds.
Covering the week Pierre Thomas of ABC News, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The early morning massacre in Aurora, Colorado, was the largest peacetime mass shooting in U.S. history. Shock turned to grief. Grief turned to despair and then took calls for unity.
GOVERNOR JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D-CO): We need to recognize that we can’t allow people that are aberrations of nature to take away the joys and freedoms that we enjoy.
MS. IFILL: Even the political world froze in place. More on that in a moment, but first, we turn to Pierre Thomas, who, for obvious reasons is working late in the ABC News room tonight. Pierre, what’s been the reaction here in Washington to this latest outbreak of gun violence?
MS. THOMAS: Well, the FBI, ATF, and the Department of Homeland Security jumped on this the minute that it happened. At one point, there were over 100 FBI agents on the scene assisting. We know the president has been briefed and been given regular updates on the situation. Gwen, it’s right now a situation where the FBI is at the scene, along with ATF, working with the locals to go through the man’s apartment which they believe is booby trapped.
MS. IFILL: What do we know of the weapons he used here? There’s been so much – there always is a talk of – turns to guns and turns to the use of guns and access to guns after something like this.
MS. THOMAS: Well, he had an arsenal. He had no criminal record to speak of other than a speeding ticket. So he was able to buy his guns legally. What we know is that he had a AR-15 style assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns that he bought recently legally at two gun stores in the area.
MS. IFILL: You made a point that these were legal weapons. Were they legal everywhere, the weapons that he had with him?
MS. THOMAS: Pretty much. Look, in this country, when you’re not a convicted felon, when you’re not mentally adjudicated as insane, you can buy weapons freely across the country. He went into a store, went through a background check, and again, because he had no criminal background to speak of, he was able to buy these weapons with no problem.
MS. IFILL: We know, then, in that case, who James Holmes, the suspect is now. What do we know about who he is?
MS. THOMAS: What we know is that he was a neuroscience major, a person who had been a medical student at some point. For some reason, that had begun to fail him. He recently was in the process of dropping out of class. He was known by people to be a very smart person, honors student in terms of undergrad, again, very bright man with a promising future. How he descended into this madness is what police are investigating tonight.
MR. MCMANUS: Pierre, this is Doyle McManus, even if this weren’t an election year, people would be speculating or wondering whether there was anything political about this. Do we know anything about his motivations?
MS. THOMAS: Again, that’s one thing that police are looking at. One thing that the New York Police commissioner talked about was a briefing that he got in which the young man apparently called himself the Joker and that his hair was apparently dyed red or orange red and that he may have been somehow acting out in character in coordination with this movie that was playing out in the theater.
MS. TUMULTY: But Pierre, this is Karen. Was there any evidence from people, who knew him, from people who lived around him – did anybody see any sorts of signs that this was an individual who was capable of something like this?
MS. THOMAS: Well, we spoke to his mother, a woman who identified herself as his mother early this morning and she indicated to her – to us that she thought that he was the man. And again, that was without much provocation. She indicated that she thought he was the man. But there doesn’t appear to be a lot of information online about this young man. In many of these cases, there’re a lot of postings and indications of feelings of anger and that sort of thing.
The one thing we do know is that he apparently timed his music in his apartment to begin blaring, playing techno music and which gunfire was a part of the music and the feeling of law enforcement is that he wanted police to come into his apartment, which again, we believe is booby trapped, where there’re all kinds of explosive devices, tripwires, and that he wanted to kill law enforcement if in fact he was killed at the scene.
MR. ZELENY: Hey, Pierre, it’s Jeff. And the apartment is on the other side of this suburb from this movie theater, are the authorities thinking that he was trying to create a bit of a distraction here, that he actually had the firepower to do even more destruction than he did?
MS. THOMAS: Well, again, that’s one of the theories that’s being looked at. What they do know is that he had a lot of bombs in the apartment. They believe so. It’s so dangerous that they’re using remote controlled cameras to look through the apartment. They’re afraid to go in there because it’s such a dangerous situation. So right now, they’re trying to calm that situation down. They’ve removed people for blocks around this apartment because the explosive may be that powerful.
MS. IFILL: You know, Pierre, one of the first things that we do these days when these sort of things happen is rule in or out the possibility of a larger terror conspiracy. Has been ruled in or out?
MS. THOMAS: Well, they were able to do that relatively quickly. Once they got the man’s name, date of birth, they ran his name through all kinds of databases in terms of international terrorism. They looked at domestic terrorism. They did a criminal background check. The only thing they could find was, again, a speeding ticket. So very, very quickly, they were able to say this looks like what they call the lone wolf scenario, and that’s very dangerous because those people, because they’re not associating with groups, there’s less opportunity to find out about them and they show up at a concentrated place in terms of lots of people, so-called soft targets, with no warning, and you see what unfolded.
MS. IFILL: True terror actually. Well, Pierre, we know you are – your work day is not done. Thanks for carving out some time for us.
MS. THOMAS: My pleasure.
MS. IFILL: Up until last night, this had been a nasty week in national politics, so we were curious to see how the candidates for president, both of whom had scheduled rousing campaign events today in New Hampshire and in Florida, would pull back from the brink. They sounded remarkably alike in their responses, emphasizing the human nature of the tragedy.
PRES. OBAMA: My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theatre as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.
MR. ROMNEY: I stand before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father and a grandfather, a husband and American. This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another and how much we love and how much we care for our great country.
MS. IFILL: Both campaigns moved to pull harsh attack ads from the air in battleground Colorado and President Obama rushed back to Washington and ordered flags flown at half-staff for a week. How quickly did they decide, in the Obama campaign, Jeff, to change course?
MR. ZELENY: I mean, almost immediately. The president was advised of this shortly before 5:30 this morning. He was down in Florida and you’re right – it was supposed to be a 48-hour campaign swing, really hutching on all of the important corners of this important battleground state, but they decided from the very beginning that he would obviously have to make some type of a statement here. But it just was not the day for politics. So it as – I mean he’s been through this before. The White House has been through this before. The – other examples like this. But the Romney campaign initially said that he was going to go through with his event in New Hampshire, but I think then followed the president’s lead and sort of did the same thing. You have to rise to the presidential sort of the level here and the American level –
MS. IFILL: But it’s easier to do it if you’re president. If you’re the guy who’s running for president, there is – it seems that there’re a lot more ways there can be missteps in how you handle something like this, Karen.
MS. TUMULTY: Yes, but at this point, sadly, tragically, we have been through this enough times that there’s almost a ritual to it. You know, in 1999, it was Columbine. In 2007, it was Virginia Tech. In 2011, it was Tucson. And what we’ve seen is that, you know, as you said, it is shock, followed by questioning, followed by some sort of call that – from all of this, we should come to some kind of higher purpose. But I went back today and looked at what the president said in his speech after Tucson, and he said, “let’s make sure that what happens is worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness.”
And certainly, what we’ve also seen after each of these terrible tragedies is that everyone promises that now we’re going to refocus on some sort of higher plane and within a few weeks, it’s back to normal.
MS. IFILL: Well, that’s the thing. After each of these, there’s always a cry to do something, but is not clear to me what that something is supposed to be, especially when it comes to policy matters.
MR. ZELENY: Well, one thing that was not mentioned today by anyone was gun control, except to Mayor Bloomberg from the New York City. He called on both major presidential candidates, President Obama and Governor Romney, to have a conversation, a dialogue on gun control in this campaign. That’s not likely to happen. In all of the rims of statements from every member of Congress and every Senator – I was looking through a lot of them – I didn’t see the words “gun control” in hardly any of them with the exception of a couple of Democrats from safe areas. So I think it’s sort of shocking that that is not part of the discussion here. There was not a discussion about anything on that score. And the White House is a little bit afraid of the politics of this. The president’s reelection campaign is afraid of the politics of this and being branded as anti-gun.
MR. MCMANUS: Talk about where the race stands now. Even amid this event, it’s been a very confusing couple of weeks, because there’s been lots of sound and lots of fury, but then, when we got to look at the polls at this point, it appeared that nothing had changed.
MS. TUMULTY: The race is very tight. Every single poll is showing that in every single swing state it’s within a couple of points. And so it does seem that both of the candidates have decided that their strategy here is to drive up the other guy’s negatives, which is why before everything was frozen in place briefly, temporarily, what we saw were, you know, the Obama campaign demanding that Mitt Romney release tax returns and trying to somehow suggest that it makes a difference whether he was still running Bain in 1999 or 2002. And you saw the Romney campaign seizing on a single comment that the president had made last week to suggest that he was somehow anti-entrepreneur.
MS. IFILL: What I don’t understand about that – and maybe there’s a poll out there that has demonstrated that either of the – whether either of those has been resonating. You point out how tight as a thick, as Dan Rather would say, this race has been. So the question is whether this – Mitt Romney’s hiding things argument that the Democrats are making or Barack Obama just doesn’t get it argument that the Republicans are making, is cutting through in battleground places like Colorado.
MR. ZELENY: It has a tiny bit. At least the Romney advisors say that they believe that this really assault of ads over the last several weeks, the Obama campaign has been outspending the Romney campaign in some instances four to one, they think it has been hurting his image because people still don’t necessarily know who Governor Romney is. So – which is why the Obama campaign is rushing to define him. But the national polls, all show everything is exactly frozen and we had a poll this week that showed that President Obama is taking a bit of a hit on this as well. His ads, the reason that his ads had to be pulled from television in Colorado, a key swing state, is because they are so sharp and biting, and he is not projecting a positive message. So that’s one of the worries from his advisors and the White House is that – I mean, the thing he has going for him, people like him. And if he loses that, that’s a problem.
MS. IFILL: What about the Republicans who’ve been giving Mitt Romney the blues in the last week and saying, you know what, just release your taxes. You’re making too much of a problem or as John Sununu said, oh, you know, he’s not really an American. Someone else talked about Barack Obama’s third world taxes. Everybody’s kind of sharp at this.
MS. TUMULTY: But I do think the fact that Mitt Romney is now taking fire from within his own party on the tax issue is going to make it that much harder. He wants –
MS. IFILL: Why do you think they’re doing that? I mean, what is that about?
MS. TUMULTY: I think that it is – and who you’re hearing this from, you know, two of his former opponents, Rick Perry and Ron Paul, Haley Barbour. I think these are all guys who’ve seen this movie before. And they think from what they’ve seen that this is going to happen. At some point, Mitt Romney is going to have to release more than two years of his tax returns. And they would rather see this happen in July than see it happen in October.
MR. ZELENY: The Romney campaign, though, is just insistent and the governor himself that they’re not going to release any more. So we’ll see. I think they’re desperately hoping to change the subject on to other things. He’s leaving for the Olympics next week and then a foreign swing, and then he’ll pick his vice president in the convention. So they hope that they can kind of get beyond this. I’m not sure that they can, because there are still Republicans who’ll be out there saying he should release them, but I’m struck by just how defiant they are on this.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, I wanted to ask about whether either side can change the subject, because this campaign has been –
MS. IFILL: They’re certainly trying.
MR. MCMANUS: – so relentlessly negative.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. MCMANUS: And really kind of character attacks on both sides. I mean, it used to be traditional, you could attack the opponent’s policies, but you didn’t call him a bad man. And these campaigns are getting pretty close to calling each of these people bad men.
MS. IFILL: Well, they used the word “liar,” I think, so I think that takes that over the line.
MR. ZELENY: And un-American.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. MCMANUS: Is this what the rest of the campaign is going to feel like, vast reefs of negative advertising on both sides and no ability to reach a higher plane?
MR. ZELENY: Yes. (Laughter.) I think yes. I mean, until the debates come – the conventions, obviously, will be an opportunity for some introductions. We’ll see all the Romney family out there, all five children, all 18 grandchildren I believe – if I have that right. And –
MS. TUMULTY: It could change any minute. (Laughter.)
MR. ZELENY: But after that, you know, I think it is going to be negative. Until the debates, the three debates in October, I think, will be very important in terms of showing some differences in policies. But now, it’s a tight race. It’s likely to be within the margin of error until the very end here. So I think that the negative ads work.
MS. TUMULTY: And it reflects that there are very few people out there left in the country to persuade. Both sides are pretty much dug in –
MS. IFILL: Which is why now? I mean, that remains the question. I believe we asked it at this table last week, which is, I know the Olympics are coming and theoretically everyone’s paying attention to that, and then after that, the conventions. Is this – are they just getting in their last licks now when they think people are paying attention?
MR. ZELENY: I think they are trying – the Obama campaign is trying to exploit an advantage here because they have more money to spend at this point and they’re trying to define Mitt Romney before he can define himself. We’ve seen this before. We saw it happen in the summer of 2004 with President Bush’s campaign. It’s very similar to that. But the question is are people paying attention or not, because the polls have not moved at all. So either, A, they’ve wasted a lot of money, or B –
MS. IFILL: They’ve built a foundation –
MR. ZELENY: – on the edges, they’ve built a foundation for – to make people skeptical of Mitt Romney.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you both very much. We’ll be watching. We have no choice.
Finally, tonight, upheaval on the other side of the world, as the conflict in Syria is officially declared a civil war, a designation that still moves it no closer to resolution in part because Syria’s allies blocked yet another U.N. effort to tighten sanctions against the Assad regime. And officials around the world worried about what Syria might do with the dangerous weapons it already possesses.
MS. SUSAN RICE: One can only hope that one day, before too many thousands more die that Russia and China will stop protecting Assad and allow this council to play its proper role.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: That they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regards to those sites.
KING ABDULLAH II: We can’t afford the use of those chemical weapons, obviously on the Syrian people, but also the chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands.
MS. IFILL: So Doyle, assuming that Syria is officially falling apart, as so many U.S. diplomats and U.N. diplomats suspect, which is the greater concern right now, the lack of sanctions, the lack of action on the U.N. or the possible presence and misuse of the chemical weapons?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, actually, I’ll choose a third category. It’s not so much the lack of sanctions, if Syria is falling apart, because sanctions were supposed to hasten that process. It’s really the fear of all the different kinds of chaos that could happen.
Chemical weapons, use of chemical weapons, the disappearance of those chemical weapons sort of being front and center this week, but this really was – you know, that uprising in Syria has been going on for about 16 months. It’s been going on a very long time. This was probably the most violent, most damaging week of the whole thing, more than 500 people killed. The conflict came into the heart of Damascus, which had mostly been spared until now, and went into the heart of the regime. A bombing apparently in a conference room in the government’s national security headquarters that claimed not only the life of the defense minister, but the guy who was the behind the scene strongman of the regime, Assef Shawkat. He’s married to Bashar Assad’s – the president’s sister. The message there was that the uprising is everywhere and the government is no longer safe in its own capital.
MS. IFILL: So that changed the calculus and there’s one thing that – I mean, we’re talking about 14,000 dead. This is not a small uprising, upheaval. But now we’re striking at the heart of the regime.
MR. MCMANUS: And now, it has also spread to the second city in Syria, Aleppo, in the north, which had largely been spared until now. And that’s why the specter of chemical weapons has come up. This is a regime that may be in its final days or its final weeks or its final months. We don’t really know. But at that point, regimes do desperate things. and so the United States and others – you saw the king of Jordan there, Syria’s neighbors are trying to put as much pressure as they can on the Syrian regime to get those weapons under control and not to use them. The latest from the Obama administration is they do believe and their intelligence believes that the weapons are under control and they’re not about to use them.
MS. TUMULTY: But what can the United States or anyone else do, besides deplore this, which is, you know –
MS. IFILL: We’re good at that.
MS. TUMULTY: – what they’ve been doing for months.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, the administration says, and it is true, that they have actually been doing more than deploring. You just can’t see it. There is support for the rebels going on. Now, the United States is not arming them. The United States is not funding them. But it is giving them non-lethal aid, which includes communications equipment that the administration now admits quite openly can be used in a military situation. The Saudis and other Gulf states are getting them money and weapons. And finally, the administration is trying to do a lot of planning so that if the regime falls next week, next month, or later than that, that there’s something in place to move in, a plan, and hopefully at some point a peacekeeping force, probably under U.N. auspices.
MR. ZELENY: We’ve seen the Obama administration’s reaction. We also saw a reaction this week from the Romney campaign. What’s their view of how this is being handled?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, Governor Romney actually has aligned himself with Senator McCain – Senator McCain’s position, which is that we ought to be doing a lot more. That we ought to be openly arming the rebels. We ought to be in there. We ought to be making sure in a more aggressive way that if this thing comes out well, that the United States is positioned to get some of the credit and that we will have been, if you like, on the side of the angels.
The Obama administration has flatly said no. We want to be more cautious. And interestingly enough, today, they got support from John Boehner, the speaker of the House, who said in an interview that he was actually closer to President Obama than he was to Senator McCain on this issue.
MS. IFILL: So when we figure it out, maybe perhaps Syria will figure it out at some point because right now, that doesn’t seem to be any bit closer. Thank you, Doyle, for that. And thank everybody else as well.
We send our thoughts and our condolences out to the victims of the Aurora shooting.
Keep up with the evolving storyline online and on air all week at the PBS “NewsHour.” And you can find the best reporting and analyses from our panelists at our website PBS.org/washingtonweek. Follow us on Facebook, twit us on Twitter, and we’ll see you here again, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.