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Rebels Claim Major Victories; Obama Lunches With Romney; Tax Talks In Washington; Egypt's President On "Time" Cover; Gymnast Turned To Drugs

Aired November 29, 2012 - 14:00   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: In Syria. Damascus International Airport has shut down. Flights in and out are canceled. Fierce fighting close off the main road to the airport.

These clashes happening as the country's Internet goes dark and cell phone communication completely drops out. The blackout means it is harder to post videos, like this one, reportedly showing shelling in Aleppo, uploaded earlier today. Now, in the past, the Syrian government has cut off access during major operations, but a nationwide blackout is unprecedented here.

All this as a Syrian military jet and two helicopters were shot down by rebels. Now, takeovers at military bases have given them a new arsenal of heavy weaponry. In this attack, they used rockets. And as CNN's Arwa Damon reports now, the rebels are claiming this as a major victory.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Children on the back of a tractor made off with a sizable tangled lump of metal. What was all too often the cause of nightmares, now a trophy of war, proudly shown off by Abu Daham (ph).

"We want to take these pieces to show them to the other villages," he says. "Let them see what happened to these planes."

Everyone we speak to here describes the fear they felt any time they heard a jet overhead. For them, this is the greatest victory.

DAMON (on camera): One man who we spoke to said that he was picking olives. That he saw the plane being hit and the two pilots ejecting. He says at that point everyone fanned out looking for them. He and others are telling us that one pilot was found unconscious with a head injury.

DAMON (voice-over): Video posted to YouTube shows a man in military uniform seemingly unconscious being carried away. As a man off camera states, "here is the pilot who was shelling the houses of civilians."

Another clip is of him in a makeshift field clinic. Head bandages. A voice says, "this is the fate of your pilots, oh Bashar al-Assad."

And this is not an isolated incident. In the same vicinity, close to the city of Darid Hasda (ph), in the span of 24 hours, rebels claim they not only brought down this fighter jet, but also two helicopters. Video posted to YouTube shows a trail of smoke and a helicopter bursting into flames, but there's no way for us to confirm when and where this happened.

These dramatic developments are a result of a pitched battle fought here at the 46 Regiment Base just over a week ago. For nearly two months, Hassan Ashuli (ph) tells us they laid siege to the base after clearing the villages around it of Assad's forces and positioning rebel snipers in the area. The final battle to take this massive base lasted 24 hours. Rebel fighters used artillery they captured from another unit on the base, firing in into the building and ending the battle.

For this rebel unit, there was a treasure-trove of weaponry. And most important of all, anti-aircraft missiles, hundreds of them, though not all functioning, the fighters tell us. Video posted to YouTube right after the assault took place shows stacks of metal boxes packed with Soviet era anti-aircraft missiles.

The regime still has the military advantage thanks to the sheer size of its arsenal. But the balance it seems may have ever so slightly shifted.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Aleppo providence.


LEMON: All right, Arwa. We're going to go live to Arwa Damon inside Syria in a moment. But first, this.

Time to talk politics here. The United States. No cameras. No reporters. Just two men meeting for the first time since fighting a bruising campaign against each other. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney just wrapped up lunch in the private dining room at the White House. I want you to watch closely because we caught Romney's "blink or you'll miss it" arrival at the White House minutes before the meeting. And there's Romney leaving the White House about 20 minutes ago. The president first mentioned plans to meet with Romney during his election night victory speech. He talked about it again during his first post-election news conference.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There may be ideas that he has with respect to jobs and growth that can help middle class families that I want to hear. So, you know, I'm not either prejudging what he's interested in doing, nor am I suggesting I've got some specific assignment, but what I want to do is to get ideas from him and see if there's some ways that we can potentially work together.


LEMON: Well, that sounds all well and good and very adult there, doesn't it, Candy Crowley? Candy's our chief political correspondent and anchor of CNN's "State of the Union." CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

LEMON: Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

CROWLEY: I know.

LEMON: So it lasted, what, about an hour and a half?

CROWLEY: Yes. Yes.

LEMON: Do you think it was really more a bury the hatchet, or was it a courtesy call type of meeting more than substance?

CROWLEY: Well, first of all, I think it's too early to bury the hatchet. These things take a little time. They poured a lot into this campaign. It was not the nicest we've had. It's also not the nastiest we've had. But, nonetheless, we know from history that these things take time to kind of bury the hatchet.

In terms of what I think this was, there is there is now some history of presidents meeting those that they beat. It has happened before. So it's become a bit of a ritual. And I think, you know, even though I -- look, maybe something will come out of it. I have no idea. But I think more than that, that this is a meeting, for meeting's sake, and the sake itself is a good one.

LEMON: Right.

CROWLEY: This is about democracy, right? I mean and here is this -- I think we'll get a picture from the White House. Here are the two of them having lunch together. This is about civility. This is about the civility of democracy and I think in and of itself that's plenty. And I don't expect much more.

LEMON: Well, at least we tried. At least we tried. That's what they can say.

But, listen, you were on the stage with these men face to face. You got to see them react when you moderated the second presidential debate. Are there any points where these two could -- could come together maybe, a meeting of the minds, on anything, or are their ideological differences too wide here?

CROWLEY: No. There's always some place that people can come together. But what did they both mention on election night? We both love America. We both want the best for America. So that's where the commonality here is in a democracy. And I didn't mean to suggest that it was -- I mean I think that it's important for democracy to see this picture. But where can they meet? I mean, the president talking about, does he have any ideas for the middle class? I just -- I think probably he heard most of them while on the campaign trail and the president rejected all of them. So I'm not sure you're going to see a lot of brainstorming come out of this.

We have seen some Democrats say they sort of liked Mitt Romney's idea about having a cap on deductions for the wealthy. That maybe there was something to that. I mean, so maybe there's some specifics, but I just think this was about the feel of it. I think this was about, you know, kind of putting that period on democracy, which sort of ends with the swearing in ceremony in January. And I don't -- I don't think we should expect much more and I think it's plenty.

LEMON: Well said. Candy Crowley, as always, thank you very much.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: Appreciate it.

You know what? Don't blink or you'll miss Tim Geithner. Timothy Geithner arriving today on Capitol Hill. Here he comes. Geithner riding in back as he takes the wheel of talks to avert the January tax hike. That's the Senate side of the Capitol and here's Treasury Secretary Geithner emerging in to the shadows. There he is right there. About to pay a call on House Speaker John Boehner.

Well, Speaker Boehner, he is the key Republican. And after his meeting with Geithner this morning, Boehner said these urgent talks haven't moved forward in two weeks. Now, keep in mind, they need to get it done by January 1st. And here's Boehner getting grumpy with CNN's Kate Bolduan. Take a look.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: To this point, most -- most public statements have been optimistic, confident, hopeful. We're all sensing a very different tone from you right now. Are you walking away from talks? Have things completely broken down, Mr. Speaker?

SEN. JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: No, no, no. Stop. I got to tell you, I'm disappointed in where we are and disappointed in what's happened over the last couple of weeks. But going over the fiscal cliff is serious business. And I'm here seriously trying to resolve it. And I would hope the White House would get serious, as well.


LEMON: All right. So, once again, here are the cliff notes right here.

Republicans on The Hill are demanding trillions of dollars worth of debt reduction. That's pretty much fine with Democrats who say the wealthy should foot the bill in the form of higher tax rates. And therein lies the catch because Republicans want the savings to come from federal spending cuts. That dispute is blocking efforts to keep tax rates from rising on everyone as scheduled on January 1st. This is a so-called fiscal cliff, January 1st.

Our newsmaker (ph) is Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. He is the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives, number one, of course, to a lot of people, I'm sure.

Hello, Representative Clyburn. How are you?

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: Hey, Don. Thank you so much for having me.

LEMON: Thanks for coming on.

Is Speaker Boehner right, though? As the clock has been ticking here, it's been ticking toward January 1st, these talks haven't progressed in the last two weeks. That's what he's saying. Is he right?

CLYBURN: Well, I don't know that I'm as disappointed as the speaker is right now. I understand some of his problem with this. But the fact of the matter is, the American people, in the elections on November 6th, voiced their approval of President Obama's approach to this. Over 3 million more people voted for him than voted for Mr. Romney. And then if you look at House Democrats, only 201 of us got elected. That means the rest of the 2 -- 435 (ph) were Republicans.

LEMON: I understand that.

CLYBURN: But we got over 500,000 more votes than they got --

LEMON: With all due respect, representative, we understand who won the election and that the president won and you feel that Democrats won. But is the speaker right? Has progress been nil on these talks for two weeks?

CLYBURN: Well, I don't know what's been happening for the last two weeks. I've not been in the meetings. I do know this. When we passed the Budget Control Act, we cut $1.5 trillion. All cuts. Another savings of another $200 billion, 1.7 billion coming from cuts.

Now it seems to me that if revenue is going to be on the table, let's put revenue on the table. The Senate has passed a plan and sent it over to the House. Let's vote on it.


CLYBURN: It provides for middle class tax cut. Let's have that middle class tax cut and then let's debate these other issues later on.


CLYBURN: This time of year.

LEMON: Representative, we have gotten word today that --

CLYBURN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

LEMON: And I don't mean to cut you off. There's a bit of a delay here. But I want to get these questions in. I think it's important.


LEMON: We have gotten word today that the president spoke with Speaker Boehner by phone last night. Our Jessica Yellin, who is our chief White House correspondent, is reporting now that the president told Boehner flat-out, no deal without higher tax rates of the wealthy. Would that be the first time that you, in your knowledge, that the president has stated that to Boehner as his absolute bottom line?

CLYBURN: Well, I don't know what may have gone on between the president and Mr. Boehner because I only understand they had discussions over the -- this last weekend, as well. But I know exactly what he said during the campaign. And I'm sure Mr. Boehner heard those comments as well as I heard them. And that is, we must ask the wealthy to pay a little more so we can get these deficit eliminated, get our debt paid down and start growing the economy again. So that's not unusual. That's not new to any of us. Nobody in the country. So I think the president is sticking to what he said throughout the campaign and, as I said, 3 million more people voted for him than voted for the other guy.

LEMON: And with that said, on taxes, if there's any chance on your side -- is there any chance on your side that it would come down to the form of a smaller tax hike on incomes above $250,000, or would you consider keeping rates the same at $250,000 and raising them only on higher incomes, say half a million or $1 million a year?

CLYBURN: Well, I think it's all part of the negotiations. We know where the president is, and that is 250,000. But there are a lot of Democrats who voiced back before the campaign 500,000, some say even a million. So all of that's going to be negotiated.

The president wants 250. If Mr. Boehner wants to come and offer something different, I'm sure he will do that. But the president stands at 250, which is below even where I was, but he won the election. So I'm going to respond to the president, though it's a number different from the one that I had in mind before we had the elections.

LEMON: All right. Representative, once again, sorry about the delay and thank you very much for joining us here, Representative James Clyburn.

CLYBURN: Well, thank you so much for having me.

LEMON: All right.

And speaking of Capitol Hill right now, one congresswoman just introduced a resolution targeting those conversion therapies aimed at turning young gay people straight. She's going to join me next.

Plus, as Egypt's president comes under fire, Mohamed Morsi speaks out about President Obama. Up next, I'm going to speaking live with someone who just interviewed Morsi. Don't miss this.


LEMON: Now to Egypt. Several new developments today.

First off, demonstrations in Tahrir Square prompted the U.S. to shut down its embassy there. The embassy was not under fire, but clashes between protesters and riot police clogged streets around the complex. This kind of chaos has been going on for days as demonstrators threaten Egypt's new Islamic president, Mohamed Morsi, with a second revolution.

Then there's this. Egyptian lawmakers, dominated by Islamists, are now rushing to draft a new constitution. This move is seen by some of Morsi's critics as an effort by the Muslim Brotherhood to hijack the constitution and Egypt's budding push for democracy.

And amid all of this, President Morsi is on the cover of "Time" magazine. "Time" calls him the most important man in the Middle East and it boasts an exclusive interview with the man credited with getting Israel and Gaza to end recent fighting.

So let's bring in Karl Vick now. He is "Time's" Jerusalem bureau chief and he is part of the team that got this exclusive interview with Morsi. He joins us now from Tel Aviv.

Thank you, first of all, for joining us. And, first off, why is Morsi the most important man in the Middle East?

KARL VICK, JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": Well, for a couple of reasons. I mean, one, he's just sort of central to, you know, the sort of new -- what they call a new Sunni axis of influence. These sort of powerful countries that are a counterweight to Iran emerging. You know, thinking of Qatar in the Gulf and Turkey, certainly.

And Egypt has just always been -- it's the largest, most populace county, Arab country. It's just always been sort of the anchor. And if you're the president of Egypt, you, by default, you probably should be the most important person in the Middle East. Right now the circumstances also are favoring Morsi.

And then the other reason is because he holds the sort of future of Egypt in his hands right now and of the revolution with what he does in the coming couple of months.

LEMON: Karl, I also thought it was interesting that you spoke with him about his relationship with President Obama. And he seems to think it's a good one.

VICK: Yes. They -- you know, there was some rough spots. He was in New York. He was in America for the U.N. General Assembly in September and I think wanted to come down and meet the president and wasn't invited or that didn't happen. And then you recall when the -- when that film -- that scurrilous film was made and there were attacks on the embassy in Cairo and President Morsi was not very quick to condemn the attacks and President Obama let him know that the alliance was actually in question over that.

But they seem to have gotten along very well over the efforts -- the combined effort to end the Gaza conflict and we're on the phone a lot and both sides say, you know, achieved some sort of rapport. Some sort of personal connection.

LEMON: Yes. Karl Vick, "Time" magazine's Jerusalem bureau chief, thank you very much.

And just in, we're getting word the Army private accused of leaking secrets to WikiLeaks is right now on the stand testifying in his defense. That's next.


LEMON: Happening now in Fort Meade, Maryland, the U.S. Army private accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of U.S. government secrets that ended up online has taken the stand now. There have been tremendous speculation on whether Private First Class Bradley Manning would testify in his court-martial pretrial hearing this week. He is testifying about the alleged abuse. No word yet on whether Manning will plead guilty to the charges, which including seven counts of leaking the classified materials. If found guilty, he would face a maximum of 16 years in prison.

In Syria, could the end game be near? Rebels and the regime fighting for the Damascus Airport as the Internet goes dark. Arwa Damon is there right now. I'm going to speak with her as the situation escalates.


LEMON: Joe Putignano was on his way to fame and glory as a young and very talented gymnast, but his desire to be perfect ultimately led him down a dark path into substance abuse. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta has his story in this week's "Human Factor."


JOE PUTIGNANO, GYMNAST: I started gymnastics when I was nine years old. And I was watching the 1984 Olympics. And it spoke to me as if it was like broadcast directly to me. And I immediately took the cushions off the couch and started flipping around.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Joseph Putignano's foray into gymnastics got serious after that. At the Olympic training center just two years later, he realized he had a natural gift, but his insatiable need to perform perfectly took over his life.

PUTIGNANO: For me, it kind of became a darkness, that I have to be perfect.

GUPTA: And that's where his downward spiral began.

PUTIGNANO: I had my first drink and all that desire for me to be perfect and to be the best was just washed away in the moment.

GUPTA: Within months, things got worse.

PUTIGNANO: I was drinking and using prescription drugs and a lot of cocaine. And it was that thing where I came to a cross roads where it was like, I can't use and perform, so something's got to go. One of the worst moments of my entire life, which I'll never forget, is actually calling the coach up and quitting. Because it's like you're giving back your gift.

GUPTA: Alcohol, pills and cocaine led Joe to heroin. In 2007, after several failed stints in rehab and two life-threatening overdoses, recovery final stuck.

PUTIGNANO: At 27 years old. I hadn't been -- I hadn't done a hand stand in almost 10 years. And I started to do hand stands and splits. And the more sobriety I maintained, the more this like light I call it. I don't know what else to say. It kind of pulled me in a better direction.

GUPTA: Joe honed his body and his mind and he started to work on Broadway as a dancer, but it was a chance meeting with a Cirque du Soleil producer that changed his life forever.

PUTIGNANO: He saw something in me that was sort of inspiring and brought hope.

GUPTA: Today, three years after that chance encounter, five years of sobriety, Joe is starring as the "Crystal Man" in the Cirque du Soleil touring show "Totem."

PUTIGNANO: Crystal Man is the spark of change. It's like some of the darkest of men who carry the brightest of light. And here I was the darkest of men and now I get to come down and shine.

GUPTA: And while he says his addiction will never disappear, he's now living a life he thought he'd lost forever. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN reporting.


LEMON: Thank you, Dr. Gupta. Be sure to watch "SANJAY GUPTA, M.D." on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. Eastern.