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U.S. Possibly Preparing Military Action in Syria; Wildfire Continues to Burn in California; Heat Wave Hits Parts of Midwest; Rodeo Clown Speaks Out

Aired August 27, 2013 - 07:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, welcome back to NEW DAY. It's Tuesday, August 27th, 7:00 in the east. Coming up this hour, former students of Donald Trump's "university" are coming forward slamming the program. We're going to hear from one man who says the program is a fraud and that Donald Trump needs to do the right thing by those he duped. The Donald is facing a $40 million lawsuit over this. He denies the accusations, but the alleged proof could be fairly significant. We'll show it to you.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: You remember the rodeo clown who created an uproar when he wore a mask of President Obama during one of his performances at a state fair. The stunt got him banned from the fair. He's now speaking out, saying it was only a joke and that it had nothing to do with race. But the fury may not have fully died down. He also says he's received death threats. We'll have an update.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: We have an exclusive here on NEW DAY. You remember the story about the fisherman who went overboard during the storm, treaded water for 24 hours without a life vest off the coast of Florida? We get to speak with him live about that unimaginable experience, how does he able to do it and what was that moment of rescue like? That's coming up.

CUOMO: We begin with breaking news overnight out of Syria. The U.S. and its allies appear to be laying the groundwork for a response to the Syrian regime and its alleged chemical attack on its own people. Meanwhile, the visit of a U.N. team to inspect the attack site has been postponed again over security concerns.

We have this story like only CNN can, including the only western reporter in Syria. But let's start with Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon. Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, U.S. officials say they don't need to wait on the U.N. inspectors, and now we may be on the verge of finding out why. The U.S. could release its intelligence estimate of what happened at that alleged chemical weapons attack as soon as today. But Russia is already warning of "catastrophic consequences" if the U.S. goes ahead with a strike on Syria.


LAWRENCE: Within days, President Obama's national security team will present him with its final detailed options, and the administration is already making the case for taking action against Syria.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people.

LAWRENCE: Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Assad regime of gassing its own people and called it --

KERRY: -- a moral obscenity.

LAWRENCE: If the president gives the order a senior defense officials says four Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea could execute a mission within hours. U.S. and British submarines are also likely nearby, all armed with cruise missiles.

The extremely accurate tomahawks can be fired from 500 miles away, with an ability to change course in midflight. The potential targets include the delivery systems that can be used to launch weapons, militia training camps being run by Bashar al Assad, and most importantly, the Syrian government's command and control centers.

The options are not designed to overthrow Assad's government but send a message to deter any further use of chemical weapons, President Obama's red line.

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Any time you throw down a diplomatic gauntlet your words have repercussions.


LAWRENCE: Weapons inspectors are still on the ground. They need to finish up their work and leave. Then the intelligence estimate has to come out, a proof, a justification for the American people. And the president needs to come forward and explain to the American people what's going to be done. But in between that and the president traveling to Russia at the end of next week seems to be a narrow window where a strike could take place. Kate?

BOLDUAN: It's getting narrower as we speak. Thank you for that update from the Pentagon.

So with the U.S. possibly leaning toward military action in Syria, what is going on inside the country? CNN's Fred Pleitgen is the only western network in the country. He joins us live from the capital of Damascus. Fred, despite warnings from the United States of destroying evidence on the ground, you said last hour that you're still seeing Syrian forces are pounding that area. What more are you learning?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're pounding it more than I've ever seen them hit it before. What we're seeing is artillery strikes as well as mortar strikes on the suburbs of Damascus, those areas where the chemical weapons were allegedly used. However the Syrian government also appears to be hearing the messages that it's getting out of Washington. There was a press conference by the Syrian foreign minister, which is actually still going on, where he said the reason why the Syrians are pounding those areas so heavily is because they are afraid that they will get overrun by the armed opposition that of course controls that area.

As we said, the U.S. doesn't buy that at all. They think that the Syrians are trying to destroy evidence out there. The interesting thing also about this press conference is that the Syrian foreign minister directly addressed Secretary of State Kerry, saying that it was not the Syrians who were holding up the chemical weapons inspectors. They say they've been asking for chemical weapons inspectors to come into the country for months and that it was the international community that was delaying their coming down here.

Of course today we're hearing that the weapons inspectors are not going to be able to go out and collect evidence today because of security concerns. The Syrian government says it's because different rebel groups have not been able to reach some sort of compromise as to securing the weapons inspectors on the ground. However, of course, it is another blow to the mission that's already been delayed for a long time. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Defiant it seems in the face of all of its growing international pressure to face the music on this. Thanks so much, Fred Pleitgen in Damascus, thanks.

CUOMO: There's been a lot of talk on the situation. Let's see if we can get some answers. Joining us now is "Daily Beast" senior political writer and senior fellow at the New America Foundation Peter Beinart. Pete, thanks for joining us here. Let's just go through the punch points here. Do you think there will be U.S. military action?


CUOMO: And do you think it will be air strike or on the ground?

BEINART: Air strike. I think the Obama administration is pretty clear they want to avoid U.S. troops on the ground at all costs.

CUOMO: Unilateral or through a coalition, and if so, who is in that coalition?

BEINART: I think probably Britain and France, Germany. I'm sure the United States would love some at least rhetorical support from some of the Arab countries that are against Syria as well.

CUOMO: Is that advisable for the U.S. to go it alone here?

BEINART: The Obama administration is trying to walk a line. They don't want to get so involved that the cost could really be very high, the American people are against that, and they're frankly concerned about the rebels fighting against Assad. I'm not sure they want to bring them to power but they want to send the message you can't use chemical weapons today.

CUOMO: But why force with force if they're worried about punishing Assad but not too much because they don't believe the rebels are ready to rule. What situation -- BEINART: That's right. If you looked at Kerry's statement, he said almost nothing about the larger Syrian civil war and Assad himself. He focused only on chemical weapons. I think they're going to try to narrowly focus this on the international norm that you should never use chemical weapons to punish that or future potential dictators who might, but to stay out of the larger conflict.

CUOMO: The U.S. situation is starting to remind me of Kosovo here where you want to get in because there's human atrocity but you don't know how to get out. Is that what we're seeing?

BEINART: Kosovo was a bombing campaign that lasted for weeks. I think the suggestion is here it might only be for days. And in Kosovo we want to change battles on the ground. Listening to Kerry yesterday, they're not trying to change the balance on the ground as much as to send a message that nobody can use chemical weapons and get away with it.

CUOMO: We interviewed the president last Thursday night and he says hold on, Chris. The international community and we have laws and American people and Afghanistan. Slow down, take it easy. Now they look like they're in a hurry to use force as quickly as possible. Why? What is the calculation?

BEINART: I think Obama's larger desire is not to get America into a third Middle Eastern conflict. That's part of the strategic vision of his entire presidency. But he had gone out and said himself that if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons that would be considered a red line. Once he put himself out there, I think it was difficult for him given the gravity of this attack, a truly horrendous attack with chemical weapons, for him to do nothing.

CUOMO: Ironically, quick take, does Russia saying don't do this help the chances that it doesn't have to be a military response?

BEINART: No, but my guess would be we're trying to send a message to the Russian, look, this is going to be a limited strike. We're not trying to overthrow Assad, and that will lead their response to not be that severe.

CUOMO: Peter Beinart thank you for the insight.

BOLDUAN: Let's turn to some dangerous weather here at home, the fierce wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park showing no signs of letting up, and it's threatening San Francisco's water supply and power grid. The rim fire burned through almost 161,000 acres so far, the 13th largest wildfire in California history. CNN's Nick Valencia is live in Groveland, California, tracking it all this morning. Good morning, Nick.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. Some good news this morning, the containment is up to 20 percent, up from 15 percent yesterday. But the smoke this morning is just miserable. It's a constant reminder there's a wildfire still raging.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) VALENCIA: Huge plumes of smoke fill the sky as the rim fire continues to rage nearly out of control. Firefighters made small progress on Monday, saying the fire is still less than a quarter contained, but the dangerous inferno is still rated to have extreme growth potential as massive flames ignite rows of trees and dry brush. The fire inched near Yosemite National Park growing to an area roughly the size of Chicago. More than two dozen aircraft are used to fight the fire, the steep terrain making it impossible to access some of the forest by land. Campgrounds now turned into ashes, this car completely charred.

But the flames are still miles from one of the biggest Yosemite landmarks, Yosemite Valley, home of the half dome, a rock formation that attracts thousands of tourists every year.

LEE BENTLEY, SPOKESMAN FOR THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE: Visitors are here by the thousands, going through the north entrance. This year that's not going to happen.

VALENCIA: The fire also threatens a reservoir that supplies both water and power sources for San Francisco.

JERRY BROWN, GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA: All the ash and loose debris onto the water, the water gets contaminated, that's bad.

VALENCIA: As well as several groves of towering sequoias, some of the oldest living things on the planet. Groveland, California, is looking more like a ghost town. The owner of this bar says it's peak season leaded into Labor Day. With the highway closed into Yosemite, she says her business in Groveland is down a staggering 98 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone who owns businesses here is terrified.

VALENCIA: The economic impact is yet to be seen, but businesses and residents are grateful for the 3,700 firefighters risking their lives to try and contain the inferno.


VALENCIA: And Chris, given the size of this fire and how many firefighters are fighting it, it's remarkable to note that one has died. Back to you.

CUOMO: It is important. It just shows it could be worse what's going on out there. Nick, thank you very much.

A late summer heat wave has parts of the Midwest and plains states sweltering. Heat advisories are in effect for seven states. Let's figure out what this means. We have CNN meteorologist Indra Petersons on it of course tracking these high pressure systems. What does it mean?

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: We're talking about temperatures literally 20 degrees above normal. Once you add in the humidity many of these places feel like 100 to 110 degrees.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) PETERSONS: One of the first lessons of the new school year, how to beat the heat. Students huddle around fans just to stay cool. Water bottles, popsicles and ice are small pieces of relief.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Students brought in fans, my friend brought in ice. So we're going to pass out ice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have water bottles right up there so we'll stay hydrated I think.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just really hot and it's just hard because we're sweating you an all that stuff like that.

PETERSONS: Temperatures across parts of the Midwest are soaring into the upper 90s with heat indices in the triple digits. Many of the schools aren't equipped with air conditioners, causing some to call for early dismissals and others to cancel the day all together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't dismiss just because kids are hot. We dismiss because learning suffers.

PETERSONS: And parents say it's the right move.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's the right call. It's hot. There's no air conditioning.

PETERSONS: It may be a heat wave in the heartland but in the desert it was a wave of dust. A monstrous dust storm called a haboob swept through southern Arizona Monday evening with visibility less than a quarter of a mile.

In southern California, residents are recovering from this weekend's flash floods that waterlogged stores and neighborhoods. The rising water stranded drivers and claimed one life. The national weather service reported a 77-year-old California woman was swept away in her car.


PETERSONS: As we take a look at the map you can see what a huge area the Midwest is dealing with advisories and warnings. In Minneapolis we're talking about temperatures feeling like 115 in some places, 100, 105 when you combine the temperature alone with the humidity.

Let's talk about the temperatures that dome of high pressure holding in strong and these temperatures are 20 degrees above normal. That's without even factors in the humidity alone. Des Moines today 103 degrees, we're talking about 96 degrees in Minneapolis, St. Louis 96. Is it just a one-day event, are we going to get relief? Unfortunately not. As we go through tomorrow barely any relief, maybe a degree, 101 still expected in Des Moines, still about 94 degrees, taking you further in through Thursday that high pressure is holding on and we're talking about temperatures. That's 90 to 100 degrees without the humidity. Combine that 110 degrees and that's just way too hot.

BOLDUAN: It's 20 degrees above the norm, amazing. PETERSONS: No, thank you.

BOLDUAN: But thank you, Indra.

Let's move now to Texas where we're expecting another dramatic day of testimony in the sentencing phase of Army Major Nidal Hasan's court- martial. Prosecutors expect to call more victim's relatives and Ft. Hood survivors to testify. They're pushing for a rare military death sentence for Hasan. CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Texas with more this morning. Give us a preview, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. This trial is now into its fourth week, and yesterday's testimony is by far the most excruciating we've heard yet. Families and survivors are struggling to find peace four years after the Fort Hood massacre. Victims' families talked about depression and thoughts of suicide. The wounds from that horrific day are more than just physical.

This was the immediate aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre. Emergency crews scrambled to save lives but the real impact of that horrific day is only now coming into full view. The jury in the trial of Nidal Hasan is hearing emotional testimony from a dozen witnesses including relatives of those killed and victims who survived.

Staff Sergeant Patrick Zeigler was shot four times, once in the head. Doctors had to remove 20 percent of his brain. Zeigler says he's retiring from the army in October, and fears he'll never be able to hold a regular job. He told the jury, "it's affected every facet of my personality. I am a lot angrier, a lot darker than I used to be."

21-year-old private Francesca Valez was pregnant when she was gunned down inside the Fort Hood medical processing building. Other survivors said they could hear her screaming my baby! my baby! before her voice went silent. Her father Juan Velez testified, "this man did not just kill 13 people. He killed my grandson ,and he killed me slowly."

For the first time in court, Nidal Hasan appeared flustered, repeatedly asking the judge for breaks during the testimony.


LAVANDERA: Prosecutors have seven or so more witnesses they want to call to the witness stand to talk to the jury about the impact of the Fort Hood massacre has had on their lives and then it will be Nidal Hasan's turn, his last chance to speak to the jury and it's still unclear how he's going to react and what he may or may not say. Kate and Chris?

BOLDUAN: Many twists and turns in this court-martial so far. Thanks so much, Ed for the update.

CUOMO: A lot of news going on right now, so let's get to Michaela for the headlines. Mick?

PEREIRA: All right, good morning to the two of you. Good morning to you at home. George Zimmerman's legal team plans to ask the state of Florida to pay up to $300,000 of his legal expenses. This would cover some of the money spent on expert witnesses, travel expenses, and transcript fees during his murder trial. Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Under Florida law an acquitted defendant can ask the court to pay some of the costs in the case.

Army Private Bradley Manning's decision to drop the bombshell he wanted to live as a woman named Chelsea happened after a military prison said it would not provide hormone treatment even though Manning had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder by an army psychiatrist who testified at his trial. His attorney also revealing new details to the Associated Press including Chelsea Manning's new middle name, Elizabeth.

Eight democratic senators and congressmen want to know if the NSA has beeb supplying the DEA with intelligence information used to make non- terrorism cases against Americans. They're calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to answer questions raised in a Reuters report. It claims a secretive DEA unit passes NSA information out to agents from the IRS, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Little Sarah Murnaghan, the brave 11-year-old who endured two adult double lung transplants in June, she is going home today. Doctors say Murnaghan has sure come a long way. She is free of oxygen -- from using an oxygen tank for the first time in two and a half years, though she still needs a machine to help her breathe. Murnaghan has end-stage cystic fibrosis. Earlier this year a judge sided with her parents, allowing her to be considered earlier on the adult lung transplant list. We wish her a wonderful, and warm welcome home.

Finally want to show you, a bad case of road rage in Russia. Look at this -- distracted driver talking on the phone nearly causes an accident, so a guy gets out of his car, reaches out and does that. Smashes the guy's cell phone on the ground. Sometimes, folks, you might feel like doing this. I highly, highly suggest you don't. Not only because of the legal ramifications our legal expert here on the set will tell you about but also because you don't know what that person might do in reaction to that. People don't react well.

BOLDUAN: He is doing what I have thought about doing so many times.

PEREIRA: But no lady, don't do it.

CUOMO: But it does make people, put you into a rage, you look over.

PEREIRA: Put the cell phone down.

CUOMO: Almost crashed because you're not paying attention.

PEREIRA: We can go on and on.

BOLDUAN: We will list all the moments. But we won't do that because it's a happy day. Let's move on.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, confessions of a rodeo clown. He says the stunt he pulled at the Missouri state fair mocking President Obam,a he says it was a joke but now he's getting death threats. We'll hear from him.

CUOMO: Plus Trump University, was it really the scam operation that New York attorney general says it was? You'll hear for the first time from a student who says he did get taken. Straight ahead.


BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY. The rodeo clown who sparked outrage after his act mocking President Obama, well he is now speaking out. He says his act at the state fair was just a joke but now he's receiving death threats for the stunt. CNN's Athena Jones is live in Washington with more. What's he saying?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate, this man faced threats of violence, he said one woman spit in his face and walked away, and that's just some of the reaction he said he's gotten to this act that offended a lot of people.


TUFFY GESSLING, RODEO CLOWN: I didn't do this to do any hating on anyone, I did it to be funny. I did it to be a joke.

JONES: It was a joke that caused an uproar.

GESSLING: President Obama, hey, I know I'm a clown. He's just running around acting like one, doesn't know he is one.

JONES: This is Tuffy Gessling, the rodeo clown whose act mocking President Obama ignited controversy, an act some called racist. Gessling's bit got him banned from the Missouri state fair for life. Now he's talking to CNN affiliate KCTV about the controversy.

GESSLING: I've had somebody threaten to run me over, one of them wanted to burn the house down. This clown bit has been around for generations and I didn't think anything more of it than what we've done 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, when we've done it with Bush, and Clinton, and Ronald Reagan.

JONES: Some conservative talk show hosts who came to Gessling's defense agreed.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, HOST, THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW: This is infantile, this is childish, this is --this is worse than political correctness.

JONES: The president hasn't commented but his spokesman did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can tell you as a native Missourian it's not one of the finer moments for our state.

JONES: Now that the dust has settled over the rodeo routine, Gessling would like to clear a few things up.

GESSLING: I never did anything because of anybody's race. I don't care what color somebody is. If they're blue, white, green, polka dotted, striped, I have no -- doesn't bother me one bit.

JONES: Gessling says he'll be at another rodeo coming up in Missouri, and --

GESSLING: If President Obama turns out, I'd be honored to shake his hand.


JONES: One more thing the rodeo clown wanted to clear up: when asked if he was a Democrat or Republican, he said, "I'm a rodeo clown." Kate? Chris?

BOLDUAN: That is one way to answer the question but also good to hear his side of the story. Thank you so much, Athena.

CUOMO: All right, let's take a break here. When we come back on NEW DAY, Donald Trump says in typical Donald fashion there's no way his real estate school ripped off its students -- 98 percent approval he said. Now we're hearing I guess from the other 2 percent, a student who comes forward saying that he got taken.

CUOMO: And did Bobby Riggs take a dive when he lost his legendary battle of the sexes match to tennis legend Billie Jean King? A new report says Riggs threw the match to satisfy his gambling debt.


ANNOUNCER: This is new day with Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan, and Michaela Pereira.

BOLDUAN: Welcome back to NEW DAY, everyone, it is Tuesday, August 27th.

Coming up in the show, an Olympic speed skater has been banned from the sport for two years after tampering with another athlete's skates. We'll talk with him live about the controversy.

CUOMO: And listen to this: a new report says the legendary 1973 battle of the sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was fixed. The details, amazing. We're going to tell them to you.

A lot of news as well, let's get the top stories from Michaela. Mick?

PEREIRA: All right, let's take a look at the things that are making news at this hour. Syria's foreign minister denying charges that Syria is stalling. He says the regime is not delaying U.N. weapons inspections.