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Interview With State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki; Widow of Firefighter Fights for Benefits; Widow: City Denigrated Firefighter's Service; IRS Probe Deepens

Aired August 7, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So why did we have to wait for Jay Leno to ask the president about this terror threat for him to finally say something publicly about it?

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, President Obama addressing the troops this very moment, while Yemen says it foiled an al Qaeda terror plot, but apparently not the one that let to a worldwide alert? What exactly is going on here? We will get answers straight from the State Department in just a few moments.

The national lead, her husband was one of the 19 elite firefighters killed together in Arizona. And now she says she's not getting the full death benefits that she desperately needs to raise their four children on her own. We will talk to her momentarily.

And the sports lead, a Braves pitcher tries to teach the Nationals' Bryce Harper some humility. And needless to say the lesson was not well-received. But these days, bench-clearing brawls really don't end, they just move to Twitter.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the world lead. Right now, President Barack Obama is speaking to troops and their families at California's Camp Pendleton, his last stop on his trip out West, this as the world remains under a vaguely defined terror threat which led the State Department to close 19 embassies and consulates in the Muslim world this week.

The president was conspicuously quiet about that until last night when he finally broke his silence about the subject on "The Tonight Show," of all places.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain time frame, then we do so.


TAPPER: We first heard about these embassy closings Thursday, but until Jay Leno asked about it, the president let officials under him handle the public information side of this threat, an effort that at times seems to bounce between this attack could happen at any time and we're not freaking out about this too much.

The alert was issued after a message was intercepted from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to his top ally in Yemen telling him the -- quote -- "do something."

I want to bring in Jen Psaki. She's the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.

Jen, thanks for being here.


TAPPER: Yemen is saying that it foiled an al Qaeda plot to capture oil and gas facilities, and seize two key southern ports, but I can't help but notice the U.S. diplomatic posts throughout that region remain closed.

So, from that, is it safe to assume that the U.S. does not believe that that was the attack that al-Zawahri ordered?

PSAKI: Well, Jake, every single day, we make decisions about how to keep the men and women who serve around the world safe, how to keep American citizens safe, how to keep visitors to our embassy safe.

We certainly work closely with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism and many other issues, but we evaluate information as it comes in. We have remaining concerns about the threats, and we have not made an announcement to reopen the embassy, but we continue to evaluate.

TAPPER: I'm assuming that our viewers can read between the lines on that answer. Thank you.

How much concern does the Obama administration have that by closing all these embassies and consulates, the U.S. may appear to be running scared from the region, feeding into this criticism we have heard from some hawks about waning U.S. influence, the suggestion that nobody is daunted by the U.S. anymore? Was that a concern at all when this was issued?

PSAKI: Well, I think, Jake, that the American people would be encouraged by the fact that people around the world serving and visiting other countries, that we take every threat seriously.

Out of an abundance of caution, we closed these embassies. They're temporarily closed. We're still even up and running, providing emergency services to people in most of these countries, but we take threats seriously. We have an obligation to keep people safe. And that's the prism we made these decisions through.

TAPPER: But it is a balance, I would imagine.

PSAKI: I'm sorry. Can you repeat that? TAPPER: It is a balance, the decisions.

PSAKI: Of course it's a balance, but there's a bar that we want to pass. And that's making sure we are doing everything humanly possible to keep people safe.

And that was why we made these decisions we did and why we have continued to provide information not only to the American people, but people around the world.

TAPPER: Let's turn to Russia, big announcement today.

President Obama has canceled a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin that was scheduled for next month in Moscow. Before the announcement this morning, the president was on "The Tonight Show" last night. And they discussed U.S.-Russian relations, and the president said this


OBAMA: There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them and what I say to President Putin is, that's the past. And, you know, we have got to think about the future. And there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": And Putin seems to be like one of those old-school KGB guys.

OBAMA: Well, he headed up the KGB.


TAPPER: What are the issues when the president is talking about, when he says that Putin still has a Cold War mentality?

PSAKI: Well, I think the point the president was making is that our relationship with Russia has been a roller-coaster ride at times. There are places where we disagree. Obviously, we made our concerns well-known about Edward Snowden and their decision to provide temporary asylum.

We have disagreements on missile defense and a range of issues, but we also have areas where we agree and areas where we need to continue to work together on, North Korea, Iran, our drawdown in Afghanistan, and that's the balance we're striking.

TAPPER: Senior administration officials say the summit was likely going to be canceled anyway because of some of the issues you just talked about, including missile defense, as well as Syria, missile reductions, economic and trade and human rights issues.

You were on the Obama presidential campaign 2012, and you all mocked Mitt Romney when he said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is without question our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.


TAPPER: Didn't Governor Romney have a point about Russia being if not the number one, at least a geopolitical foe? Your own account, you call this a roller coaster. It's been a very -- a relationship in some trouble.

PSAKI: Well, Jake, it's also important to know here that Secretary Kerry is still meeting with his counterpart on Friday, because it is such an important relationship.

And the decision made around the summit on Monday -- that was supposed to be in September had a number of factors. Of course, Snowden was a factor, but there were discussions even before that about whether progress was going to jump over the bar or pass the bar here to warrant a presidential-level meeting.

So, Secretary Kerry is hoping to continue the conversation, issues where we agree, issues where we disagree -- you mentioned many of them -- on Friday. And maybe there will be a summit in the future, but it wasn't the time to do it in September.

TAPPER: I want to talk about the Olympics and some comments that the president made last night concerning the anti-gay laws that Russia has passed recently, especially when it comes to the Olympics. How far is the president willing to go when it comes to his concerns about how gay and lesbian athletes might be treated in Russia?

PSAKI: Well, I think the president's statement last night speaks for itself.

The fact is human -- issues for gay and lesbian individuals living around the world are human rights issues, and there's a moral obligation here to take that into account. Human rights issues are one of our biggest areas of disagreement with Russia. It certainly will be a part of the discussion on Friday and it's always a part of the discussion.

I think the president was making the point that many -- that we all feel as a government, which is that LGBT issues are human rights issues and they should be high on the docket of conversation.

TAPPER: But still no boycott on that issue or any of the other issues that the U.S. has with Russia, right?

PSAKI: Well, no one is suggesting that from the government, but we do believe we need to continue to make our concerns heard, voice them publicly and privately, and we will continue to do that.

TAPPER: All right, we have a lot of other parts of the world that I want to get to, but we're out of time. PSAKI: OK.

TAPPER: So, we will have you on again some time.

PSAKI: Absolutely. I would love to.

TAPPER: Thank you so much, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

PSAKI: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: It's been more than two years than since the disaster at Fukushima nuclear plant. And it's clear that Japan is still struggling to deal with it.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now ordering the government to intervene and help the power company TEPCO with the cleanup. Not a bad idea, considering an estimated 300 tons of highly radioactive water is gushing out of the facility every day and seeping into the Pacific Ocean.

This is the first time the government has stepped in to help TEPCO deal with the problem. Right now, it's not clear how much damage the contaminated water is doing.

Coming up, a top firefighter who died trying to save others from this vicious blaze, they call him a Hotshot, but his widow says now she's getting the cold shoulder.

And, later, marijuana for sale steps from the Capitol, so why isn't the federal government doing anything to stop it? Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In our national lead, it's been more than a month since 19 families lost their loved ones in a wildfire. They were an elite group of firefighters known as Hotshots. They were overtaken by the blaze in Arizona northwest of Phoenix. The only survivor of the Hotshot crew, Brendan McDonough, was separated from the rest of his crew when they died.

He spoke to ABC News about losing the men he calls his brothers.


BRENDAN MCDONOUGH, SOLE SURVIVOR: Asked a million times, why am I sitting here, and why isn't someone else, why aren't they sitting here with me?

I was still with our vehicles in one of buggies. And I could hear -- whoever didn't bring their phone, I could hear phones ringing, knowing that it was their wives, their family. I sunk, sunk into my seat. I sunk into myself. I couldn't think.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Now one of the victims' widows is speaking out, and she's saying she's denied by the city the lifetime benefits she needs to raise their four children.

They are Ryder, who is 6, Shiloh, 4, Tate, who is 2, and Choice, who is 18 months.

Juliann Ashcraft, widow of 29-year-old firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, joins me now from Prescott, Arizona.

Juliann, first, thank you for being here, and our deepest condolences for you loss. I can't even imagine what you are going through. How are you doing?

JULIANN ASHCRAFT, WIDOW OF FIREFIGHTER: Oh, it's a roller coaster. Thanks for having me, Jake.

You will have to excuse me. I'm feeling emotional. That's the first time I have heard Brendan speak about that, about those cell phones. And it's got me pretty teary, but I'm OK today.

TAPPER: Oh. I'm so sorry for what you're going through.

To turn to the issue that you want to address, can you explain to us the benefits you're getting from the city and what you say you're being denied?

ASHCRAFT: Well, sure.

Essentially, all I can say is that my husband was a full-time employee for the city. And the benefits package that they offered as they're presented to us would be basically a government benefit that would come in, as well as a workman's compensation, and then that would be it.

The rest would be private donations that people are going to send in or have been sending in from just out of the goodness of their heart. But it would not include the things that the other six full-time are receiving.

TAPPER: And how have the city officials responded to you when you have expressed this concern you have, the fact that you have four beautiful children that you still need to continue to take care of?

ASHCRAFT: Well, the city, we have only met with them one time. That meeting was extremely contentious.

They were rude and unprofessional. It took me by surprise. I was grateful that I went in there with counsel so that they could be explaining to me some of the information I might not understand. And I felt horrible for the families that went in there or must have gone in without any sort of legal counsel, because it was rude and unprofessional.

I just felt no compassion. Really, I kind of expected to go in there and they would feel like they had lost great employees as well. And there was just no sense of loss or devastation on their part whatsoever. They made personal attacks, and were rude, and in some ways condescending. It was just -- it was unfortunate. I was just shocked and extremely disappointed.

TAPPER: I don't want to make you revisit anything unpleasant, but can you give us an idea of the kind of personal -- personal attack that they launched?


You know, I mentioned to the HR department that my husband did work full time, my kids and I sent him off to work 12 months a year for the city of Prescott, and her response to me was that it must be a marriage issue, that perhaps we had bad communication in our marriage is why I did not understand his employment status.

Later in the conversation, when we readdressed the issue that Andrew was in fact a full-time employee, she said, well, maybe you're referring to the fact that he applied to be a full time employee, but we did not select him. He was never even our second pick. He was always our last pick.

Which I was there saying he was promoted for a lead position, that he was the rookie of the year his first year. He exceeded all expectations. He was receiving promotions on a routine basis.

So, for her to say that he was not someone they would select for a supervisory position when in fact they had done that was an attack on his character. And it was offensive to me and to my family.

TAPPER: And just to remind our viewers, they're characterizing your husband. They're saying he was a seasonal firefighter, therefore, not eligible for lifetime benefits. But as you point out he worked full time even if he was seasonal.

ASHCRAFT: Correct.

TAPPER: Are you planning on filing any type of lawsuit?

ASHCRAFT: Well, we have 180-day period wherein we would need to do that. And certainly, we reserve our right to do that if it comes to do that. That is not my hope. My hope is a resolve of this issue, that amicably we can come together and decide how to fix this.

I don't want any sort of anger or animosity towards anybody, but I am a single mother of four children. And that's why my husband was working, to be able to provide for us. And I have to fight for what he already earned.

It's sad that I have to go this way. And I'll do whatever I can to get our resolve. It doesn't have to be ugly. I don't know why it ever got this way.

I'm sad because, you know, my family and Andrew's family for decades back have been in the city of Prescott, we've been in the community of Prescott. I've just been shocked that it's taken this, you know. And I've been grateful to the people who have stood up in support of us. There's been state officials that have done lots to stand in support of us that I'm so grateful, even for members of the city of Prescott and the community of Prescott, and certainly the fire department has done everything they can do. There's just a handful of elected officials in the city of Prescott that I can't seem to get to understand.

My husband was a full-time employee, entitled to the same benefits as the other six full-time employees.

TAPPER: I have to say if someone did start casting aspersions, that's -- I'm sure I share of views of everyone watching, that that's outrageous if someone said that. I certainly hope that was some sort of misunderstanding.

Obviously, to the rest of the world, we think of the Hotshots as unbelievably brave and valorous men.

Tell us about Andrew. What do you want people to remember beyond how brave he was?

ASHCRAFT: Oh, sure. Andrews was a family man. He was an incredible husband. He was a loving father. He had a unique individual relationship with each of our children. So they all feel a massive void with him gone, in their own lives and in our home. He just had a strong presence everywhere he was.

Andrew never had an enemy. He worked himself as much as he could for whatever cause he was engaged in, which was exactly what he did when he worked for the city. It was above and beyond. He would do what he was called to do and then some. And all of those guys are the same way. The entire 20-men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots would go above and beyond.

Andrew had just a little spark about him that he always -- you always knew he was there. He was happy. He was full of life. He lived every day to the fullest. So, in 29 years, he lived a life he can be proud of and lived every moment. I don't think a lot of people can say that, even if they live a long life. He just really lived it to the fullest.

TAPPER: Juliann, before you go, is there someplace where any viewers who want to make a donation to you and the other families, where they can go to help you with your four children, to help the other families?

ASHCRAFT: Sure. Well, thank you. Thank you for asking. Prescott Firefighters Charities is a great one to go. The 100 Club has been also helpful. They also are taking contributions.

I just want to say thank you to everyone who's already donated. It's been phenomenal and that's how my bills are being paid right now. And so, those are the organizations I would recommend. I think there might be others that I'm not aware of. But the 100 Clubs, the Prescott Firefighters Charities, that money will come to the families in time as soon as they work the administration issues, and that would be a great place that would go 19 ways.

TAPPER: And if you at home didn't have your pens handy, we will put it up on our Web site at

Juliann Ashcraft, keep us posted on your story. We want to have you back. We want to make sure this is taken care of. And please send our love to Rider, Shiloh, Tate and Choice, and good luck to you.

ASHCRAFT: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up, Mitt Romney comes out of the New Hampshire woods and rattles the GOP's Tea Party faithful. We'll talk about the war Republicans are waging upon themselves with two hosts of CNN's new show "CROSSFIRE."

And it may not have been a bench clearing brawl, but online, fists were flying. The digital digs two major league ball teams hurled at one another last night.

Stick with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for the sports lead. Baseball brawls are not what they used to be. Remember those good old roundhouse throw-ins at (INAUDIBLE) Danny Brooks of yesteryear? Well, today, they start on the field and they end on Twitter. The latest happened last night after National's Bryce Harper blasted a home run to center field and 20-year-old decided to admire it a little too long.

Braves pitcher Julio Teheran didn't appreciate that, so he drilled Harper with the first pitch the next time up. The benches were cleared. But the first punch was thrown by the dude who runs the Braves Twitter account.

That said, "Clown move, bro." That's a quote from Bryce Harper himself to a reporter last year. @nationals responded to that with, "Which part, giving up the home run or drilling the 20-year-old on the first pitch is next time up?"

But the Braves got the last laugh with their 12th win in a row.

It's giving the Super Bowl shuffle a run for worst football video every. The Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, rapping for the NFL on your phone. Strap in.


TAPPER: Truly, truly horrific. Yet another reason why the NFL off- season were shorter.

For more than a decade it was a dungeon, but today, Castro's house of horrors was finally reduced to rubble. That's coming up. And what do the Federal Election Commission, the IRS and Tea Party targeting scandal have in common? Well, that's what Darrell Issa wants to know.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In national news -- no coat of paint, no window treatment, no carefully worded listing could ever enhance the curb appeal of Ariel Castro's Cleveland home. And it's probably better that no one will ever live inside again.

The buried lead, maybe if they put a damp towel under the door, Congress won't notice, the first medical marijuana dispensary opens for business in Washington, D.C., right in the backyard of lawmakers who have upheld the federal ban on the product. And the pop culture lead. This week is always a ravenous rating for the Discovery Channel. But has the channel, finally -- and forgive the phrasing, we can't resist -- jumped the shark by hoaxing its own viewers?