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Colorado Flooding; Syria Negotiations Continue; Interview With Former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar; Biden Slams "This Neanderthal Crowd"

Aired September 13, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All the sandbags in the world couldn't stop the devastation happening in Colorado right now. I'm Jake Tapper. And this is THE LEAD.

The national lead, families separated, loved ones missing, rushing floodwaters cutting off entire towns in Colorado. And the rain is unrelenting.

The world lead. Going into extra innings. The all-important U.S./Russia summit over Syria isn't ending when we expected it would. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

And the sports lead. Eli has one more ring, but he's never beaten Peyton on the field. He gets another shot at it this weekend when the Manning brothers go head-to-head, but, first, he talks to us. May the best man win endorsements.

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

We will begin with the national lead, and the historic rainfall that has literally washed away entire communities in Colorado. A 150-mile stretch of the state is dealing with massive flooding brought on by torrential downpours that in many cases will not let up.

Colorado residents are being warned to stay off the roads, but not everyone is taking heed, which is keeping emergency crews and the National Guard pretty busy. About 20 people have been reported missing. And there are at least three flood-related deaths.

Let's take a look at how fast the water is moving in some areas. This is right outside of people's homes, this shot. There are fears the situation could get worse before it gets better. Meteorologists say up to another half-inch of rain an hour, an hour, is possible this afternoon.

Joining us now by phone is Heidi Prentup. She's a commander from the Boulder County Sheriff's Office.

Heidi, we're hearing some of the worst damage is in your county. Tell us about some of the devastation this flooding has caused.


Yes, we have had a lot of rain up in the mountains that has eliminated access to several of our communities, has undermined roads, and structures have fallen into the water.

TAPPER: What is so unusual about these torrential downpours? Are they worse than normal or is there something else that's causing the problem?

PRENTUP: Well, Colorado typically gets about 11 inches of rain a year, and we have had over that in the last two days.

TAPPER: Amazing. Unbelievable. Are there any towns still being evacuated at this point, or has that all been done, all that work?

PRENTUP: We still have communities that we cannot reach, so we are currently working to evacuate the Lyons area, which is being done with the assistance of the National Guard. We have communities in the mountains that we have not been able to reach because the roads to their communities are washed out, so they are without power, without water, and without any way for us to get to them.

TAPPER: There's just -- there's just little neighborhoods, pockets that no one can reach and they can't get in or out?

PRENTUP: They're small towns, and they live in areas that the water has washed out the roads that lead up the canyon.

TAPPER: Are there still concerns that canyons in Boulder County might give way and send even more water rushing through that city?

PRENTUP: Absolutely. The problem is a lot of the debris that flows down the river then gets caught and then when the water subsides for a short time, the debris readjusts and it can start another flow.

TAPPER: Heidi, I want to talk more about those individuals who are stuck in these towns, and they can't get out, and you and the emergency rescue personnel can't get in. How many people are we talking?

PRENTUP: We're currently in the process of evacuating 2,500 people from the Lyons area, and we have a community, it's called Jamestown, and I don't have an accurate count. Could be 500 to 1,000 people there, but I don't have an accurate number there.

TAPPER: And what are they doing? Is there any way to communicate with them?

PRENTUP: We do have some communication with some of the areas, either by cell phone or radio. A lot of these communities have volunteer fire departments, so as long as their radio batteries last, we have communication with them that way.

TAPPER: All right. Commander Heidi Prentup, thank you for joining us and best of luck. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

PRENTUP: Thank you. I appreciate it.

TAPPER: It wasn't even a year ago that people on the New Jersey coastline were dealing with horrendous floodwaters of their own when superstorm Sandy belted that coastline. Now Seaside Park will have to rebuild again after an enormous fire left much of its famous boardwalk in cinders.

What you're looking at now used to be ice cream shops, amusement rides, some of the best make-out spots you will find along the shore. I say that as a Philly boy. Today, it's a smoldering heap. A lot of this was rebuilt after Sandy. Now it's back to square one. But if you're under the impression that New Jersey is just going to sit there and take it, well, Governor Chris Christie says you can forget about it.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: When New Jerseyans call New Jerseyans, they don't think twice. They come to help. That's what it means to be from our state, which is why I know that when we lost a place that has provided generations of memories to our citizens, we will rebuild. We will make new memories for our families because that's what we do.


TAPPER: I want to go to Margaret Conley, who is on the scene right now.

Margaret, business owners lost everything there. What have they been telling you?

MARGARET CONLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they are devastated.

I think they're still in shock today. The business owners that we talked to, they rely on the businesses that are lined up behind me. They rely on them for their livelihood. Over 50 businesses were impacted down this four-block stretch. It took $8 million to repair the damage from Sandy, and these business owners, they looked at the damage, they walked through it this morning, and they're saying it's going to cost more than that -- Jake.

TAPPER: Now, Margaret, I know that it's early yet, but what are investigators saying about the possible cause of this fire?

CONLEY: Yes, that is the question we have been pushing to get an answer on. They're not going to speculate. We know investigators are on the ground now. The Orange County prosecutors are taking the lead and they're going through the evidence. They're putting everything into piles and they are going to sift through it.

But they are telling us we may not know the cause for days to come -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Margaret, how long will it take to recover and rebuild from this? Are there any estimates as to that?

CONLEY: Yes. They're not going to go there either. Governor Christie was asked that same question. He's taking it one step at a time. I think they want to find out what the cause is first, and again, these business owners are saying it's going to take longer to rebuild this time than it did from Hurricane Sandy.

TAPPER: Unbelievable. Thank you, Margaret Conley in Seaside Heights, New Jersey.

Coming up in the world lead, the talks continue, but has any real progress been made? What's going on behind closed doors in the U.S./Russia meetings on Syria's chemical weapons coming up next.

And, later, he went into hiding at the height of his career and now decades later, a new film uncovers new secrets about the private life of J.D. Salinger.


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

In our world news -- world lead, some breaking news now. U.S. officials telling CNN that a major component of the United Nations Security Council resolution in Syria is likely off the table.

Let's bring in chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's with Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva.

Jim, what are you hearing about this U.N. Security Council resolution?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this would be a major development because this has been the principal disagreement not only here in Geneva between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, the use of force, but also between officials in Washington, officials in Moscow, Europe, et cetera.

This has been the sticking point and from the very start of these talks here in public and in private, that's what Secretary Kerry have really been coming up against. And when I spoke to a U.S. official early on, they said that these talks have been tough, they haven't been easy. They said -- quote -- "They have been talking straight. They have been making clear their agreements and disagreements."

And you and I have covered enough meetings like this to know that that is code for a frank discussion. They're not necessarily throwing chairs at each other, but they're also not necessarily having a meeting of the minds as they're going through these issues. So if the U.S. is willing to back off including the threat of military force in a U.N. resolution, that could help grease the works here for an agreement on that first step which is a plan for Syria's chemical weapons.

TAPPER: Jim, is there any -- can it be that the threat of force is not mentioned in the resolution, but the U.S. still maintains its current posture and President Obama continues to talk about it?

Is it possible that the Russians get their way in the U.N. Security Council resolution, but the U.S. still has this stick above the head of Bashar al-Assad?

SCIUTTO: No question. I think you just described where we're headed with this, because the U.S., President Obama, Secretary Kerry, is never going to explicitly take that off the table and U.S. officials have told me that a number of times here, that the president will never disavow the use of force if he believes it's in the U.S. military interest.

But if they can accept it not being on the resolution, the Russians get to say what they want to say, the Americans get to say what they want to say, you might be beginning to see the outlines of an agreement, at least on that issue.

But there are many other issues to be worked out, particularly cataloging, collecting and destroying these weapons, and that by everyone's estimation here is really a first step.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto reporting with the very latest from Geneva, Switzerland. Thank you, Jim.

Let's bring in former Republican Senator and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar. He's here with me in studio. He's now president of the Lugar Center. That's a nonprofit that focuses on issues like getting rid of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Senator, it's a pleasure and honor to have you here.


TAPPER: Tell us about your efforts to rid chemical weapons of Syria, to get chemical weapons out of Syria.

LUGAR: Well, last August 2012, I was in Moscow, I made a proposal, first of all, at the Defense Department there then in a public statement, a press conference, "New York Times," Reuters and others picked it up, as did the Russian press, suggesting that Russia and the United States had cooperated in destroying our own chemical weapons.

We built this huge plant out at Shchuchye, for example, where even as we speak Russian war -- well, chemical weapons are being destroyed. I suggest that this is a time we both respect each other. We ought to think about the Syrian weapons, which, even at that time, were vulnerable to being picked up by somebody else.

At that time, the war ministry was not enthusiastic about it, although they didn't forget about it. I know this because I talked to a Russian television network this morning, and they said, what do you think about your idea bobbing up? I said, well, that's very generous, but, still, I think it's a good idea.

TAPPER: Why weren't the Russians interested? Just to bring it back for our audience, obviously, there is a civil war going on there for two-and-a-half years. The chemical weapons are scattered throughout the country, and, as you say, they're not safe. Who knows who will get their hands on them?

You bring this proposal to the Russians. The Russians and the U.S. have had a lot of success, thanks in part to people like you, in ending the chemical weapons and getting rid of them, destroying the stockpiles. You say to the Russians, let's get rid of the Syrian chemical weapons, and they brush it off. Why?

LUGAR: Well, at the time, they wanted to brush off the rest of the Nunn-Lugar program, too. They were tired of having Americans around. They said, we don't need your money anymore and so forth.

TAPPER: The Nunn-Lugar program, just for our viewers, is the program to get rid of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste throughout the country.

LUGAR: Yes, exactly.

TAPPER: Throughout the world, rather.

LUGAR: Exactly.

But nevertheless, I think they reconsidered. The foreign office was never quite that negative. On our side, it wasn't too much movement on the situation. As a matter of fact, it came as a total surprise but I think it's a transactional situation in which President Putin, President Assad believe essentially that Assad is going to stay in Syria.

TAPPER: He's going to stay in power?

LUGAR: Yes. So-called stability. Unless something terrible happens, like an American strike --

TAPPER: Right.

LUGAR: -- or American participation.

So if the quid pro quo is essentially that Syria will have to give up these weapons, which may become very troublesome for Russia in due course and the rest of the world, why, so be it. Assad stays, Putin stays, there's so far stability there, and we just say that this could be fortuitous. There's no way I can think of that all Syrian chemical weapons would ever have been found or destroyed without there being this international push.

I would just add one further thought. That is, the United States has developed excellent technology which has not really been commented on, mobile units that can go out into the field and destroy chemical weapons, I'm told five to 25 tons a day, as a matter of fact. This is being presented as almost an insurmountable obstacle. Granted, the firing of everybody around is a problem and how --

TAPPER: Civil war going on.

LUGAR: Yes. And how we work with the international community, because the international community, for instance, say, OK, we designate Russia and the United States to take care of this. It's those that you cannot destroy in the field, we can cart off perhaps to Pochep (ph), where the Russians are destroying in a plant America built out there, their own chemical weapons now as we speak.

TAPPER: I want to ask you in the time we have left about, you have worked across the aisle with many Democrats including then-senator, now President Obama. He's going to be awarding you the presidential Medal of Freedom this year. I understand you have a close working relationship.

Do you understand the concerns of some Democrats and Republicans in Congress when they look at how President Obama has handled this crisis in the last few weeks, those who say the message has not been as coherent as it should be and the position of the United States has not been as consistent as it should be?

LUGAR: Well, I think it's easy to say. The facts that quite apart from consistency and every dotted "I", some great things have happened. It may have happened --

TAPPER: Potentially.

LUGAR: Yes, potentially. The fact this has even opened up, the thought of an international peace conference, which is really off the table likewise, quite apart from the chemical weapons, which is very serious, would not have happened without President Obama threatening the strike. Same with the international norm had been broken.

Because when I was in Russia a year ago, some Russians said, well, it is after all the possession of the Syrians, how dare us to get into their positions? They would say they have never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Well, that's right. One of five or seven that have never done so, all sorts of excuses.

The fact the Russians are now suggesting this is on the table, as a matter of fact we ought to be discussing with our aides and so forth how you do it, I'm just trying to advance the situation by saying we have a non-Lugar investment in Pochep, and the program. There already is a path to get it done and there are people here in our own Defense Department that know how to do it now, and that has to be part of the argument, hasn't really come into it.

TAPPER: All right. Former Senator Dick Lugar, a man who made it his life's mission to rid the world of deadly weapons -- thank you for your work and thank you for coming by today. We appreciate it.

LUGAR: Thank you, Jake. Thank you very much.

TAPPER: The politics lead is ahead. Let's check in with our political panel in the green room.

Ramesh Ponnuru, Vice President Joe Biden just called some of his rivals in the House "Neanderthals". We have reached out to Fred Flintstone for comments. But do you think the vice president just bombed the administration's relationship with the House back into the Stone Age?

RAMESH PONNURU, "THE NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, as a conservative I'm all about turning back the clock, Jake, but maybe not quite that far.

TAPPER: Right, not to the message (INAUDIBLE) era.

Stay tuned for more of THE LEAD. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The politics lead, call it the politics of the Paleolithic.

Seventeen days out from a potential government shutdown, you might optimistically hope for some bipartisan spirit to flare in Washington -- but not last night at the Naval Observatory.

Vice President Biden was throwing harsh words at some members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, ones who didn't support his signature legislative achievement, the recently renewed Violence Against Women Act. Take a listen.


JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was surprisingly last year we ran into this sort of Neanderthal crowd that, you know -- no, I mean it. No, I'm serious -- I mean, when you think about it, I mean, did you ever think we would be fighting over, you know, 17, 18 years later to reauthorize this?


TAPPER: Literally Neanderthals, literally. Literally Neanderthals.

Let's bring in our panel and talk about it.

Senior editor of "The National Review," Ramesh Ponnuru; from "The Washington Post" TV's "In Play", Jackie Kucinich; and CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala.

Ramesh, do you chalk this up to a Bidenism or do you think it's indicative of a problem we're going to have as we try to avert a government shutdown, the attitude the Obama administration has to House Republicans and vice versa, I should add?

PONNURU: Well, I think the vice president was saying what was on his mind --

TAPPER: As he does, this is one.

PONNURU: I don't think Republicans will hold a grudge. I think they're going to say that's Biden being Biden. They take him seriously as a negotiator. They don't particularly take what he says in public all that seriously. They just think he flies off the handle.

TAPPER: Paul, is there something deeper going on here? Because we are -- I mean, all the attention has been on Syria but we are approaching a very perilous economic time right now with this government shutdown.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: We're 17 days away from a government shutdown.


BEGALA: I think Ramesh is right. The House -- first off, it's an insult to Neanderthals.


BEGALA: I think Homo erectus. I think Homo erectus, which is more primitive than Neanderthals.

But the truth is I actually do have friends and sources in the Republican Party on the Hill, they like Joe Biden. They like dealing with him. They feel like they can negotiate with him, make a deal with him.

Frankly, they don't like the president. They don't like him politically and they don't like him personally.

So Biden has actually been quite a good ambassador. I don't think this comment drains that goodwill. They like him. He's a creature of the Hill and he knows how to cut a deal with them. So, I don't -- I think this is not going to hurt Biden at all.

TAPPER: Jackie?

JACKIE KUCINICH, HOST, "IN PLAY" ON WASHINGTON POST TV: I think at this point, it's premature to talk about the negotiations with the president since House Republicans are kind of negotiating within themselves at this point --

TAPPER: Right.

KUCINICH: When it comes to continuing resolutions and all of that.

But, no, the relationship has never been good and you see that spike every so often, every time we have one of these deals. What this means is basically I'm going to be standing in a hallway very, very late on September 30th.

TAPPER: This does come at a time also, Jon Karl at ABC News just reported this afternoon that even though President Obama said in his speech to the nation Tuesday night that he had discussed delaying the vote with congressional leaders, that neither Speaker Boehner nor Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, both House Republicans, had been consulted in any way, and obviously, I'm sure they're not happy about that.

This comes at a time when relations with Congress are odd, to say the least.

PONNURU: Well, and the Republican leaders have stuck their necks out supporting the president on Syria beforehand. That is a complaint you hear about a lot, that the president has not invested the time to try to build relationships and this is just another example. It's a very important example, though. TAPPER: Jackie -- Paul, I mean, I'm sure you would argue, the White House's perspective is these guys don't want to deal with us.

BEGALA: Yes, but he has to consult and not just inform. This is legitimate criticism, honestly. As you point out, Boehner and Cantor, who disagree with the president on almost everything, stepped up early and supported strikes in Syria despite the fact that the country as a whole and the party especially hates them.

I do think they were owed real consultation. I don't know if it makes them feel any better but you hear the same thing from the Democrats on the Hill, too.

Some of it's just the normal separation of powers. OK, I worked on the Hill, I worked in the White House, there are always tensions that even transcend party.

But I think this president especially has got to do more personally. He's got quite a good staff. His chief of staff comes from the Hill, they like him a lot on the Hill, but there's nothing like hearing from the president himself. I think he has to engage more directly.

TAPPER: Speaking of hearing from the president, President Obama hasn't really talked much about or at least publicly about Vladimir Putin's op-ed in "The New York Times."

Senator John McCain was on the show yesterday and when I asked him about Putin's op-ed, this is what he said.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'd like to have a chance to have a commentary in "Pravda".

TAPPER: (INAUDIBLE) probably, right?

MCCAIN: If that would have--


TAPPER: McCain would like a response now. Interestingly enough, John Hudson of reports that the English editor of that Russian publication "Pravda" now says, "Mr. McCain has been an active anti-Russian politician for many years already. We've been critical of his on Russia and international politics in our materials. But we would be only pleased to publish a story penned by such a prominent politician as John McCain."

Jackie, your talk on this? Should he take the opportunity to write an op-ed in "Pravda"?

KUCINICH: McCain or President Obama?

TAPPER: Well, McCain.

KUCINICH: Why not, right? I mean -- TAPPER: You think President Obama should?

KUCINICH: President Obama I don't think has much to gain from that, unless, you know, he and Putin want to start doing it in "The Washington Post" op-ed page. Then, you know, anytime.

TAPPER: Right, right, on your show.

KUCINICH: But -- totally. But as far as President Obama doing it, I don't think he has much to gain.

For McCain, why not? I mean, this is something he talks about a lot. I don't think he has anything to lose.

TAPPER: What's the response at the national review when you picked up the "New York Times" and saw the op-ed from Vladimir Putin? What was your take?

PONNURU: Well, we thought that -- certainly I thought that Putin was sort of doing his victory dance over having gotten this new role in the Middle East, that Soviet and then Russian leaders have been trying to get for decades.

BEGALA: It's a complete insult. He's preening and promoting himself. There's a kernel at the heart of it which is he wants to help get chemical weapons out of Syria but the rest of it is deeply insulting.

I'd say John McCain had this guy's number from the beginning. When President Bush met with him the first time, said, I peered in his soul, called him Putty-Putt. It's embarrassing.

McCain, even though the president was of his own party, McCain stood up, said I peered in his eyes too and I saw three letters, KGB.

So, McCain's had his number from the beginning. I think it would be great for him to write an op-ed for "Pravda". I'd love to see it.