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Interview With Senator John McCain; Putin's Message to Americans; Obama's History of Careful Consideration Disrupted; 3 Killed in Massive Colorado Flooding; Syria Moves to Avoid U.S. Strike

Aired September 12, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Vladimir Putin's open letter to the American people seems to be going down about as well as a borscht smoothie. I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, Russia's president lecturing the U.S. over Syria in an op-ed, telling the American people to stop thinking we're special. Our guest, Senator John McCain, calls Putin's words an insult.

The politics lead. He wanted strikes. Then he put the onus on Congress. And only after that did he give peace a chance through this round of diplomacy. The Syrian crisis is challenging President Obama's deliberative nature at every turn.

And the national lead. Colorado just cannot win. First, it was wildfires. Now it's flash floods sweeping away cars, washing out roads. What's next, a plague of locusts?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the world lead. As we speak, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva meeting with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Their summit is crucial in determining whether the U.S. should buy into Russia's plan to strip Syria of its chemical weapons and also in determining just how serious the Russians are about carrying this all out.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is not a game. It has to be real. It has to be comprehensive. It has to be verifiable. It has to be credible. And, finally, there ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): And I'm convinced that our American colleagues, as President Obama stated, are firmly convinced that we should follow the peaceful way of resolution of the conflict in Syria.


TAPPER: I'm sure you know that there is a very real possibility that none of this will work out, especially since the Russians want the U.S. to remove the threat of force from Syria as these negotiations take place. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. accuses of using poison gas on his own people, well, he echoed the Russian position today.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): I want to clearly express to everyone that these mechanisms will not be carried out unilaterally. This does not mean that Syria will sign these documents, carry out the conditions and that's it. This bilateral process is based first of all on the United States stopping its policy of threatening Syria, also to the degree that the Russian proposal is accepted.


TAPPER: The United Nations says that it has received a document from Syria saying it wants to join the international treaty banning chemical weapons.

Secretary Kerry will be in Geneva through tomorrow for the negotiations with Russia. Relations have been cold between the two countries recently, like Siberia cold, especially after Russia gave NSA leak source Edward Snowden a "stay out of U.S. jail free" card. So can the two sides work this out?

Our own chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is standing by live in Geneva for us right now.

Jim, what have you found out about the discussions going on?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we're hearing of our first disagreements, actually.

Secretary Kerry referenced this in his public comments. Bashar al- Assad saying he believes he should have 30 days to give a full accounting of his chemical weapons, that that would be standard. Secretary Kerry saying there is nothing standard about these talks, they are expecting much quicker action.

Another disagreement on the use of force, President (sic) Kerry saying the threat of force still is something the U.S. is reserving, the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov saying force cannot be on the table, something repeated by President Bashar al-Assad. But Secretary Kerry and his team say that that's why they came here, in effect, to test the Russians at their word, to test the Syrians at their word, to see if they're serious about this commitment.

And the first sign they're going to have that the Syrians are serious is that they give this full accounting, not just of the stockpiles of chemical weapons, but exactly where they are, and of course, we're hearing about some of the first doubts about that, claims from the rebel side that the Syrian government is already moving some of these weapons out of Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, something already denied by the Iraqi government.

When I was on the plane coming in and all day today, U.S. officials telling me they're coming here with a healthy dose of skepticism. They wouldn't be here if they didn't believe this Russian proposal was real. That said, a gaping trust deficit between the U.S. and Russia and certainly between the U.S. and Syria, and what they want to see here are not just words, they want to see action, and their timeline for this is very tight.

They will want to see something real and hard, the outline of an agreement in these next 48 hours. Very crucial timing -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto live from Geneva, thank you so much.

On the eve of this meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear that the U.S. and Russia are coming to the table from very, very different sides. Putin having scored a diplomatic coup -- wait -- the administration hates that word. I'm sorry.

Having scored a diplomatic upset by essentially forcing President Obama to negotiate after he called for strikes, and Putin couldn't just leave it there. He penned an op-ed for "The New York Times" claiming that it was the rebels, not Syrian regime forces, who used chemical weapons.

Then he closed the op-ed by attacking the ideal that President Obama mentioned in his speech on Syria, that the American people, that we are exceptional. Putin writes -- quote -- "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

Sounds pretty critical of Americans and their Yankee blue jeans. This is not going over well with U.S. lawmakers of every political stripe. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, told me he had a physical reaction to the op-ed.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: I almost wanted to vomit. The reality is I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interest and what is not.


TAPPER: So did Putin's comments make anyone else ill?

Let's get some reaction from Republican Senator John McCain, who joins me here now.

Senator, before I get to Putin's comments, what do you make of the negotiations going on right now between Secretary Kerry and the Russian foreign minister?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, I hope that they succeed. I think everyone in the world does. But I'm very, very skeptical.

Lavrov in the little press event that they had earlier today said, of course we don't know who is using the chemical weapons. Well, that kind of dishonesty, if that characterizes what they're negotiating, then I'm not very optimistic.

I'm also more offended that here we are negotiating to remove chemical weapons at the same time planeloads of arms are flying into Damascus that are used to kill Syrians, already 100,000 of them.

TAPPER: You're talking about the Russians arming...

MCCAIN: Russians.


TAPPER: But the CIA is arming the rebels.

MCCAIN: Well, that's like saying the people who fought against Hitler were morally equivalent. They're not.

Bashar Assad has butchered over 100,000 of his citizens in the most barbaric fashion. And the Russians, while talking about removing the chemical weapons, are flying in vast supplies. And, by the way, still what our CIA is doing is -- quote -- "light weapons." Jake, light weapons don't do very well against tanks and airplanes.

And it's almost shameful that for two years now, this has gone on and now they trump it with leaks on the front page of "The Washington Post" this morning, arms are flowing to Syria. They're not the right arms that are going in.

TAPPER: They need anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft.

MCCAIN: Yes, and anti-air, absolutely.

TAPPER: So the line that you're criticizing exists -- this line about, OK, well, they're trying to get rid of the chemical weapons, purportedly, but the conventional weapons continue to flow from Russia to Syria, that's a line that President Obama...

MCCAIN: And from Iran, and from Iran.

TAPPER: And from Iran.

But that's a line President Obama has set, the red line on chemical weapons -- 100,000 people killed in Syria without U.S. doing anything about it, other than economic sanctions and diplomacy. I know that you have been advocating for arming the rebels, but that's not Lavrov's line. That's not the Russians' line. That's President Obama's.

MCCAIN: But, again, in all due respect to the president, if someone dies by being tortured to death or shot in the head with a bullet or from inhaling a chemical weapon, what's the difference?

It's the president that set a red line, and I'm not sure if it was an offhand remark or what. Now that red line has been crossed. The president said he was going to strike. He announced he was going to strike. Then he decided that he had to go to Congress for permission to do so or endorsement for doing so. Now -- and spoke to the American people, arguing for a pause and action. And, of course, my constituents are confused by all this. And then, of course, with an offhand remark from the secretary of state also saying, oh, there's no way they will ever remove...

TAPPER: Right.

MCCAIN: ... these chemical weapons.

TAPPER: He said it was impossible.

MCCAIN: Then Lavrov, who is many things, including an old apparatchik, but seized upon that and now puts Putin in a position of almost unprecedented influence in these affairs.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Putin. What did you think of his op-ed? What did you think of him saying that the Syrian rebels are the ones who did the chemical weapons attack and saying that there's no such thing as American exceptionalism?

MCCAIN: I would like to have a chance to have a commentary in "Pravda."


TAPPER: Not going to happen, probably, right?


MCCAIN: ... if that would happen.

Look, as long as we always remember who Putin is. He's a KGB colonel apparatchik who has never really abandoned the ambitions, the Russian ambitions for an empire and influence in the world. And so we should not be surprised. Putin calls our secretary of state a liar and our secretary of state turns around in testimony and says the Russians are cooperating with us.

This is an Orwellian experience we're going through.

TAPPER: Assad says...

MCCAIN: What has Putin or Lavrov ever done that would make us entrust them with a mission of removing chemical weapons from Syria?

TAPPER: Well, nothing as far as I'm concerned, but I guess the argument is at least that this should be tried, this should be attempted.

MCCAIN: I agree, as long as it's not too long.


TAPPER: How long is too long for you?

MCCAIN: Oh, days. But let me point out that because of the threat of a strike, Bashar Assad had grounded and moved all his aircraft around. Guess what happened the day after the president announced the pause? The strikes started again.

Guess what started in the suburbs of Damascus and other places? The intensified military action against the Free Syrian Army. So who wins in all this? Who wins in all this? And I can tell you it's a blow to the morale of the Free Syrian Army. And our friends in the region are befuddled. And this cannot help but encourage the Iranians when it comes to the nuclear weapons issue.

TAPPER: One last question for you, sir. And Senator -- former Senator, now Secretary John Kerry, he is a good friend of yours, a fellow Vietnam veteran. He's over there right now.

Assad saying today that this threat of force by the U.S. has to be taken off the table. Putin has said similar things. It's obviously what the Russians are going to be pushing John Kerry on. What's your message to him on that issue?

MCCAIN: My message is, don't do it. And, by the way, the Israelis have struck weapons -- places where sophisticated weapons that were designated for Hezbollah four times. They attacked a facility that was turning into a nuclear facility.

TAPPER: Sure, 2007.

MCCAIN: Yes, some years ago. There's never been a response.

And as the prime minister of Israel said, Israel can take care of itself. That was his statement. So for them to threaten some kind of retaliation, well, all I can say is that they know that would be very counterproductive.

So all I can say is that I hope it succeeds. I think it has done incredible damage to American credibility already, and I think the chances of getting a really verifiable regimen is not good.

In the meantime, we have sent so many mixed messages, our enemies are encouraged and our friends are discouraged.

TAPPER: Senator John McCain, thank you for coming by here to THE LEAD and sharing your views.

MCCAIN: Thank you for having me on, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up next on THE LEAD: He likes long walks with his trusted advisers before he makes big decisions, so just how hard is it for President Obama to change course once his mind has been made up?

And, later, who needs to stay up for late-night TV anymore? Talk show hosts are ditching the old format and going viral. Jimmy Kimmel tells me why it's a blessing and a curse.


Now, it's time for the politics lead. When it comes to making decisions, President Obama does not like to be rushed. Long walks with advisors, Situation Room meetings where everyone's voice is heard -- but this time, with the crisis in Syria, the president's hands have been tied in no small part through his own words and actions.

Pushed and pulled by leaders in Russia and Syria, as well as the U.N. and the Congress, this crisis has made for a very public show of incoordination by no drama Obama.

CNN's Jessica Yellin joins me now.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this one is a little bit like reality TV show, decision making inside the White House where you, the public, get to see exactly how foreign policy decisions are made usually behind closed doors, but it's now playing out in public view. As you point out, the White House keeps emphasizing how the president's decision making is very considered, very deliberative.

For a long time, though, that's been a winning story line for the White House, because he's just so thoughtful, it's worked for them until now.


YELLIN (voice-over): You know the image. President Obama deliberative, determined, the thinking man's leader.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It dawned on me. He's all alone. This is his decision.

YELLIN: The raid on Osama bin Laden. President Obama's careful consideration before giving the kill order became part of his re- election narrative.

AD NARRATOR: There was internal debate as to what the president should do.

BIDEN: The president turns to every principal in the room, every secretary, what do you recommend I do?

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: The president wanted to make sure at the end that he had the view of all the principals.

YELLIN: Message, his process worked.

BIDEN: I want to tell you what I've observed -- this guy has the backbone like a ramrod.

YELLIN: And an appetite for taking his time. Like the months-long review of troop levels in Afghanistan.

ROBERT GIBBS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I assume that any decision is a number of weeks away?

There are a series of decisions that have to be made and the president is working through many of those decisions.

REPORTER: How long is it going to take?

GIBBS: That's what -- that's part of the decision making process that's ongoing.

REPORTER: Been going on forever.

YELLIN: Critics accused him of dithering.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We've had the highest casualty totals in years over the last month or two. Why? Because all of the uncertainty around what the president's going to decide.

YELLIN: The president rebuffed that attack, invoking the troops.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way.

YELLIN: But he did ultimately decide, this time on Syria, he's sharing his command decision with these guys and this guy, and the playbook seems to change by the day as he works through his decision making process live on TV.

OBAMA: This is not convenient. This is not something that I think a lot of folks around the world, you know, find an appetizing set of choices. But the question is, do these norms mean something? And if we're not --


YELLIN: Doesn't he seem agonized?

So, when I talked to administration officials, they insist that we all have politicized this issue and that the president is treating this with the appropriate amount of gravitas. You could argue that potentially the president politicized this when he decided to take it to Congress, but that's just so two decisions ago.

TAPPER: Interesting.

And then, also today, Carney disputed the notion that there's been something bad about his leadership skills, the president. He said, "The American people appreciate a commander-in-chief who takes in new information, doesn't celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness."


YELLIN: Decisive --

TAPPER: Decisive comments.

Jessica Yellin, thank you so much.

Coming up next on THE LEAD: a 20-foot wall of water, a freak storm traps drivers in their cars and kills at least three people. Why authorities fear more may be dead.

Plus, we heard President Obama lay out his plan for Syria, but does he have a secret plan for President Bashar al Assad? That's coming up.


TAPPER: This just in to CNN: A massive fire burning right now on the Jersey boardwalk. Fire crews are on the scene at the Funtown Pier, a popular amusement park along the boardwalk in Seaside Heights. You may remember the same park was hit hard by super storm Sandy in October. It only partially reopened but the rides were still closed. No word yet on the cause or any injuries.

In the national lead, what do you do when you get the orders to evacuate your home and the only pathways to safety have been washed away by flood waters? Well, that's the cruel reality for families in parts of Colorado, where relentless rain and racing flood waters have already killed at least three people.

Take a look at this rescue that played out on live TV. Emergency crews put their own lives in danger by helping to pull a man from a partially submerged car. Then they managed to get him out safely and he was taken to a hospital on a stretcher.

There are also reports of building collapses and a dam break in Larimer County, and water is said to be flowing over the tops of five dams just north of Boulder. In some neighborhoods, the water is six to eight feet deep.

CNN's Ana Cabrera is in Boulder, Colorado, she has the very latest.


ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Roads turned into virtual rivers. You can take a look behind me. This is inside the city of Boulder on one of the main thoroughfares. And you can see that water rushing very quickly over the roadway. And right now, several road blocks are in place. Debris scattered all over the roads.

Now, the county outside of Boulder just a little bit north of here is really the hardest-hit area. Let me give you an idea of what rescuers are up against as they try to reach many people who are still trapped inside their homes on some of the outskirts of the county. We're told they are encountering eight to 10 feet walls of debris. We're talking about six to eight feet of water behind those walls.

So, it's a very dangerous situation for rescuers. They are describing it as frustrating and getting desperate. In fact, they are getting calls from people all over the county saying they need help and they can't get to them.

As a result, the National Guard has now been mobilized, is on its way here to Boulder to help out with some of the emergency rescues that are in the process of taking place, and there are just too much right now to get to. And so, emergency officials are asking everybody to stay inside, do not go out in your cars because many cars are also becoming trapped in these flood waters.

We're staying on top of it from here in Boulder. I'm Ana Cabrera, reporting.


TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: Syria reportedly agrees to a deal, but will it be enough to prevent a U.S. military strike? Details of the United Nations agreement, next.

Plus, from KGB to peacemaker? Why my next guest thinks Vladimir Putin could literally be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize.