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Wildfire Threatens Water and Power Supply; U.S. Military Ready for Any Contingency; Investors Jittery About Syria; GOP Ramps Up Minority Outreach; GOP Ramps up Minority Outreach; Grand Sham?

Aired August 27, 2013 - 09:30   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now in the NEWSROOM, firestorm. New concerns as the Yosemite fire gets dangerously close to a major water source for the city of San Francisco.

Plus, how will the GOP court black America. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Republicans try to repair relations.

And, game, set, match and a hug. Serena Williams' opponent going to the ball boy for inspiration. We'll take you courtside.

NEWSROOM continues now.

Good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me.

Water, power, and some of the oldest living trees on the planet, all are threatened by a huge wildfire that's still growing in Yosemite National Park. On the ground, 3,700 firefighters hard at work. In the air, 26 aircraft keep flying and dropping water and retardant on the flames as the fire gets close to a key reservoir in the region's hydroelectric generators. Lee Bentley is with the U.S. Forest Service. He's on the phone this morning.

Good morning, Lee.


COSTELLO: So, everybody's saying the size of this fire is historic. From your perspective, what do you see?

BENTLEY: Well, the fire is historic. In fact, it's grown to almost 180,000 acres. We've worked a number (ph) of ways today and a little bit lower humidity, three to four degree difference from yesterday, I see another intense fire day. The fire is burning into the Yosemite Park. Last night, when I went to bed, it had burned 2,200 acres. I think it's increased. As far as hydro, I think we've pretty well caught the (INAUDIBLE). I don't think it's going to get down there at all. I feel pretty comfortable with that.

COSTELLO: Well, we keep hearing that maybe the sequoias, those giant, beautiful trees in California, may be in danger. What do you think about that? How in danger are they? BENTLEY: Well, they're definitely in danger, but we're doing everything we can to -- we've cut a lot of area around it using water in the sprinklers to keep it wet in case the fire does get that far. But, you know, we've got a pretty good chance of keeping it away, but it's going to take a heck of a lot of work and a lot of air power.

COSTELLO: We keep hearing, sir, about so many wildfires cropping up, especially out west. What do you think is causing this?

BENTLEY: Well, we've had a real, real dry season the last couple years. Where I'm at right now in the Sierras, we only had 54 percent of the normal snow pack. And everything is very, very dry. You can light a match and (INAUDIBLE) touch it there (ph) a leaf, it would probably ignite.

COSTELLO: Lee Bentley, thank you so much for joining us. I know you're busy. Lee Bentley with the U.S. Forest Service.

A report about last week's suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria could be released as early as today. A U.S. official says that information has already been given to top Obama administration officials as being declassified for wide distribution. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel tells the BBC, the U.S. is ready to go if President Obama orders attacks on Syria. Let's bring in Chris Lawrence. He's our Pentagon correspondent.

Chris, good morning.


You know, Secretary Hagel has been in Asia all week traveling on preplanned visits, but it shows the seriousness of the situation in Syria that he has been completely looped in. Just this morning, he was making calls with his counterparts to the defense ministers of both the U.K. and France, talking about the situation in Syria and what the next steps may be. And in an interview with the BBC, he indicated that the U.S. military is all prepared, all options have been presented, and they are ready to go at a moment's notice. This follows a defense official telling us that once they get the order, once President Obama has decided on an option and the order is executed, the assets in place could begin that mission within hours.


COSTELLO: And I was just going to ask you about some of the options. Chuck Hagel says the United States is ready to go. What exactly does that mean? I know there are warships in the area armed with cruise missiles. Is that what he means?

LAWRENCE: That's right. Let's start with what it doesn't mean. They've ruled out ground troops. They've also ruled out a no-fly zone. What they're looking at is stand-off options. In other words, those four U.S. Navy destroyers that are positioned there in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It's also believed that the British have a submarine there. All of those are armed with tomahawk missiles, which are able to, you know, fire from 500 miles away to strike land-based targets. They'd be going after, you know, command and control centers. The means by which the Syrian regime could launch weapons, artillery batteries, launch centers, things like that. We do not believe that they're actually going to try to strike actual stockpiles of chemical weapons. That's a big point of contention.

And we're told that all of these options are limited. They're not designed to change the battlefield radically, to shift all the momentum to the opposition, much less to try to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. These are very limited options designed to reply to what the U.S. says is a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

COSTELLO: All right, we're going to talk a lot more about this with General Spider Marks in just about an hour. Chris Lawrence, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: You're welcome.

COSTELLO: Investors are jittery about a possible U.S. military strike on Syria and we're seeing the Dow down more than 100 points just after the open. Alison Kosik is watching it all from the New York Stock Exchange.

Good morning.


You can always count on uncertainty to rattle the markets. You're looking at investors worried about the possibility that the U.S. is preparing for military action against Syria, especially after those comments from the secretary of state yesterday. We did watch the Dow drop in the final minutes of trading yesterday because of that and it's the reason we are seeing the Dow down about 92 points. And this is following global markets, which are lower as well.

But, you know, this is just another week of back and forth, which is kind of normal. When you look at the broader view, though, it shows just how strong the market's been for the year despite the rocky past few weeks. You look at the S&P 500 for the year, it's up 16 percent. And you know what that means, it's great for your 401(k). In fact, there's a new Fidelity study that shows that the average 401(k) balance jumped 10 percent% in the second quarter of this year. Guess who's doing better? People who actually stayed in the market, who had the stomach to stay in the market. Fidelity says workers who've been invested in a 401(k) for the past 10 years, they've seen a jump of 19 percent. So it's a lesson to anybody looking to keep on plunking in money or dumping money into their 401(k), just keep on going because it may just work.

COSTELLO: I know. And for God's sakes, don't borrow against your 401(k) or borrow from your 401(k).

KOSIK: Exactly.

COSTELLO: A dreadful mistake.

KOSIK: It sure is (ph). COSTELLO: Alison Kosik, thank you so much.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, the GOP ramps up its minority outreach. But as the party tries to diversify, could some prominent politicians and policy be the Republicans' biggest challenge?


COSTELLO: The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is bringing together Americans of all backgrounds, including political parties. Republicans kicking off the week with their own commemoration at a luncheon attended by RNC Chairman Reinice Priebus and prominent black Republicans, like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former Congressman Allen West of Florida. But as Priebus crisscrosses the country in an effort to repair minority relations, people like West and others could be hurting his efforts with statements like these.


ALLEN WEST, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: You have this 21st century plantation that has been out there, where the Democratic Party has forever taken the black vote for granted and you have established certain black leaders who are nothing more than the overseers of that plantation. So I'm here as the modern day Harriet Tubman to kind of lead people on the underground railroad away from that plantation and to a sense of sensibility.

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: There are kids that were brought into this country by their parents, unknowing that they were breaking the law. And they will say to me and others who defend the rule of law, we have to do something about the 11 million. And some of them are valedictorians. For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another hundred out there that they weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.


COSTELLO: In fairness, Republicans did condemn Congressman King's immigration statements. Speaker John Boehner calling them "ignorant" and "not a reflection of the party." It's hard to take back words, though, from anyone.

Joining me now from Washington, HLN contributor and Hiram College political science professor Jason Johnson.

Hi, Jason.


COSTELLO: OK. So Mr. Priebus asked you to sit down with him so he can find a way to repair relations with minority groups. Tell me what that was like.

JOHNSON: It was really interesting. It was - it was a small number of African American journalists and pundits and - and I can tell you, if you do the eye test, Reince Priebus, he's sincere. He really does want the Republican Party to reach out to African-Americans. He wants to do a long-term plan, hiring people within the black community to reach out and talk about what the GOP has to offer. The problem is, the rest of his party outside of that room probably disagrees with almost everything he was trying to do. But I think he, and most of the people there, were very sincere.

COSTELLO: So, his biggest problem is members of the Republican Party?

JOHNSON: Exactly. A perfect example is, Representative Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin said yesterday, got in front of this entire crowd of people and said, the number one priority of the Republican Party needs to be replacing section four of the Voting Rights Act. And people in the room cheered. And yet when we got into the room later on and talked to pundits and journalists, there were many conservative Republicans there who said they would go to war with him over that. And so that's the sort of, you know, schizophrenia they've got in the party.

COSTELLO: Well, it's interesting you bring that up because Colin Powell, who is an African-American and, of course, a Republican, said that the fight against voting rights in this country would backfire on the Republican Party. Let's listen to what he said.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: But here's the -- here's what I say to my Republican friends, the country is becoming more diverse. Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans are going to constitute the majority of the population in another generation. You say you want to reach out, you say you want to have a new message, you say you want to see if you can bring some of these voters to the Republican side. This is not the way to do it. The way to do it is to make it easier for them to vote and then give them something to vote for that they can believe in.


COSTELLO: So, you know, I'm just wondering, Allen West was invited to this luncheon. Was Colin Powell? Why wasn't he there?

JOHNSON: Yes, there were a lot of prominent names that weren't there, and I thought that was interesting, as well. Colin Powell wasn't there. Allen West was there. I had a chance to chat with him.

I think one of the other things about who wasn't there is it was a majority black room and that's not really the demographics of the Republican Party. I think it would have been better if you would have more white members of the party there, as well. This can't be an effort by just black people and Reince Priebus. This needs to be an effort by the total party to really reach out to black voters. They can never win another national election if they're getting less than 10 percent of the black vote.

COSTELLO: But if it's in your mind -- African-Americans voted for President Obama, what 93 percent of African-Americans voted for President Obama -- so if it's in your mind that African-Americans will always vote for a black candidate over a white candidate, then what's the answer? If that's in your mind?

JOHNSON: Well, see, and that's -- that's the problem. There are too many Republicans who think that and they just dismiss 47 percent of the vote. You look at Bob Dole. Bob Dole got 14 percent of the African-American vote and that was against the first black President, Bill Clinton.

So there is a message out there that the Republican Party can use, but they've got to stand up like Ken Melman did, you know a former RNC chair. He stood in front of the NAACP and said, "Look, I'm going to have a zero tolerance policy towards racist comments." That's what Reince Priebus needs to do. He needs to shut down the members of the party who keeps saying racist and offensive things that scare African- American and Latino voters away from the party.

COSTELLO: Jason Johnson thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

COSTELLO: Still to come in the NEWSROOM, if you didn't get your fix from this year's Video Music Awards and who didn't? Red carpet -- red carpet season is just around the corner. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler got rave reviews for co-hosting last year's Golden Globes, will they repeat?


COSTELLO: Checking our "Top Stories" at 50 minutes past the hour.

As early as today a military jury could begin deciding the fate of Major Nidal Hasan -- the Army major faces the death penalty after being convicted of the 2009 mass murder at Fort Hood. The death penalty is a rare sentence for the U.S. military. The last execution was back in 1961.

Incredible video of a huge wall of dust -- yes, this is the haboob and it blew through Phoenix, pushed by winds from an approaching storm. The destructive weather follows days of severe storms and flooding.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the popular co-hosts of this year's Golden Globe have been asked to do it again on 2014. No word on whether the former SNL alums have signed off.

Here's what's all new in the next hour of NEWSROOM.

Florida taxpayers -- George Zimmerman is asking you to cover his attorney fees -- that will be a quarter of a million dollars please. But wait what about that legal defense fund?

Also, we meet the man beneath the Obama rodeo mask. Tuffy Gessling trying to clear the air.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TUFFY GESSLING, RODEO CLOWN: I never did anything because of anybody's race, I don't care what color somebody is if they're blue, white or any polka dots or in stripe. I have no -- it doesn't bother me one day.


COSTELLO: The rodeo cowboy says he'd be honored to shake the President's hands.

Plus --


COSTELLO: The boys of One Direction open up to CNN about the best part of being pop stars.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it is fun. It's very fun.


COSTELLO: That's all new in the next hour of CNN NEWSROOM.


COSTELLO: A stunning report says the iconic 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was rigged. Andy Scholes is here. I don't believe this.

ANDY SCHOLES, BLEACHER REPORT: And good morning, Carol.

You know 50 million people tuned in to watch King beat Riggs nearly 40 years ago. And it remains the most watched U.S. tennis match ever but now we are learning that the outcome may have been orchestrated by the mob.

COSTELLO: Oh come on.

SCHOLES: Al Shaw told ESPN outside the lines that before the match he overheard Riggs tell a group of mobsters at a Tampa country club that he would throw the match if they forgave his $100,000 gambling debt.

Now Riggs lost in --

COSTELLO: What does the mob care about this?

SCHOLES: Well lots of people watched the match you have to imagine a lot of people bet on this match as well, Carol. Now Riggs lost in straight sets to King. Some people believed something was up even back then, because well just four months earlier, Riggs had easily defeated Margaret Court who was the number one female player in the world at the time.

Now King says this story is ridiculous and she knows that Riggs was playing to win that day.

The entire college football world waiting to see what's going to happen with Johnny Football down in College Station. According to ESPN, officials from the -- officials from the NCAA questioned Manziel for about six hours on Sunday about his involvement with various autograph brokers. If the NCAA determines Manziel accepted money to sign autographs he could be ruled ineligible for the entire season. Texas A&M opens the season Saturday against Rice.

Well, a day after reports surfaced that Lamar Odom had disappeared after an apparent fight with his wife Khloe Kardashian his agent says Khloe knows exactly where Odom is and he is not missing. RadarOnline is reporting that Odom is going to release a statement admitting that he's addicted to prescription drugs. Odom's agent says the (inaudible) forward still plans on playing in the NBA this season.

Trending right now on, in the first round of the U.S. Open Serena Williams was dominating her opponent Francesca Schiavone. Serena won the first at 6-0 and was cruising in the second set. Poor Schiavone was so demoralized by what was going on -- check it out Carol. She goes over to the ball boy to get a hug. And then the ball boy's face is like, you want a ball? Wait. You want a hug? Well, you're pretty sweaty so I'll kind of give you a half hug.

COSTELLO: So wrong.

SCHOLES: I don't think we'll ever see that again.

COSTELLO: There's no crying in tennis unless you're playing Serena Williams, right?

Did I mention Miguel Cabrera number 43 going to win the Triple Crown, because David is going to slow down? Andy Scholes, thanks so much.

The next hour of "CNN NEWSROOM" after a break.