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Interview With U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes; Interview With Matt Damon; Relief Efforts Continue in Philippines; Obama's Legacy on the Line?; "Rockstar Energy Drink" Toys?

Aired November 15, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tired of getting bumped by Jimmy Kimmel, actor Matt Damon is joining us instead today. I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. CNN has been on the ground in the Philippines since the super typhoon hit, giving you the most comprehensive coverage of the disaster, and yet our own Anderson Cooper is being attacked now by the Philippine elite for something he said on this very show about the government's response. Anderson joins us live from the disaster zone in moments.

The money lead. This toy looks awesome. A remote-control boat suggested for ages 8 and up, but wait a second. What the -- is that the logo for Rockstar energy drink stamped on the side? Didn't the company swear to Congress that it was not marketing to kids?

And the pop culture lead.


TAPPER: You're involved in a lot of different groups. We counted at least 30.


TAPPER: Believe it or not.

DAMON: Does that include like the handsome men's club with Jimmy Kimmel?


TAPPER: Actor, activist and all-around handsome man Matt Damon joins us to convince you to help him change the world.

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

We will begin with the world lead. Coconuts, they are the only thing keeping some survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan alive. They are living like castaways in some areas due to -- quote -- "total absence of food and water," according to one Philippine health official.

The typhoon was just the beginning. Disease, hunger, thirst, these are now the main challenges to seeing the sun rise on another day in the disaster area. Some are still keeping watch over the dead bodies of their loved ones.

According to officials there, the death toll now tops 3,600 and counting. More than 1,000 are still missing. The government estimates that two million people are in desperate need of food, two million.

And despite the obstacles and clear difficulties the government is having in getting relief to those who desperately need it, some in the Philippine media would rather focus on the government's image.

A radio host in the Philippines who just happens to be married to the country's interior secretary accused our own Anderson Cooper of coming on THE LEAD and claiming he saw no presence of the Philippine government on the ground in Tacloban.

Only problem is, Anderson never said that.

Anderson Cooper joins us now live from the Philippine capital, Manila.

Anderson, welcome. Good to see you.

On Tuesday, you described to me the crowded scene at the crippled Tacloban airport, survivors huddled there. You expressed surprise that the government hadn't gotten a better handle on the situation, but you never said that there was no Philippine government presence on the ground.

But what's your reaction to this bizarre and inaccurate attack? Why do you think she said that?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, I'm not really clear. I don't know who this person is. I know she's the wife of the -- you know, of the interior minister, who I guess also was under the impression that I said this, because he came looking for me when I was on the ground in Tacloban.

But I don't really know. She's some sort of radio host or something and this is what she said. You know, obviously, having been on the ground there, we were reporting what we were seeing. And, of course, there's plenty of Philippine military and police presence at the airport and at roadblocks.

One of the things I was saying is that, out in the field, even half-a- block away or half-a-mile away from the airport, where people's bodies are laying out, where families are searching for their lost loved ones, they have seen no help. And mothers who are searching for their dead kids have gotten no help in that search from rescue workers, according to all the mothers I have been talking to who are there.

And I have been going back day after day after day to check in on if they have been getting any assistance to try to search for their lost children. So I was saying that, in Japan, we saw government -- we military soldiers, national defense soldiers the day after the tsunami going block by block systematically and just walking through the wreckage looking for bodies or anybody who may be alive.

I think politics are involved with this. I think the federal government is concerned about criticism they might be getting. Local authorities are pointing fingers at the federal government. Federal government is pointing fingers at local authorities.

The bottom line, the only thing that matters, this is all just kind of a bizarre "sideshow. The only thing that matters is what's happening on the ground and, is aid getting to people who need it most? And, clearly, there have been, you know, big delays, big lack of organization on the part of the Philippine government on the ground there.

That is starting to get better. There is starting to be more food distribution by the World Food Program and others, but it's certainly been far too long. And time is the enemy of people when you're desperate for water and desperate for food and medical attention.

TAPPER: And, Anderson, regardless of what the government may or may not be doing, you have seen some incredible resilience from the people of the Philippines. Tell us about that.

COOPER: Yes. Yes.

I mean, I just keep thinking about this and I can't stop thinking, I mean, the strength it takes not just to survive a storm, but the strength it takes to -- for a mother to survive the aftermath of this storm, when six of her children are dead, when she can't find three of their bodies and, you know, when a mother can't find water to give to her thirsty child.

I mean, the strength that it takes, even in a good day, to live in a shack and deal with the indignities that poverty foists and forces upon people, the people of the Philippines are incredibly dignified. And in the face of very little help all this past week, they have been standing tall with humor, I mean, people laughing, finding ways to smile even amidst the heartbreak. And it's just -- it's a privilege to see.

TAPPER: Anderson Cooper in Manila, thank you so much.

Anderson doing some incredible reporting there. And he will have more at 8:00 Eastern.

Turning now to Iran, a country that the U.S. has little reason to trust for decades now, what with "Death to America" still the phrase to beat among protesters there, and, of course, Iranians are still miffed at the U.S. for the whole helping overthrow their government thing from the '50s, not to mention actions taken during the Iran-Iraq War.

So can it be that the U.S. and other world powers are -- quote -- "getting close to a deal" with Iran over its nuclear program, as a senior administration official tells CNN? We heard the same thing a week ago, but then talks stalled.

I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, it sounds like there is significant progress. Is a deal closer today than it was a week ago?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They are expressing some real confidence here.

I was able to speak to two administration officials involved in this. They say it's a six-month deal, an interim deal while they negotiate something longer-term, the keys here, that not only does it stop the Iranians from expanding their program, but also rolls back key parts of the program.

The other thing I noticed, they said that it affects all aspects of the nuclear program. So we're talking about enrichment. We're talking about stockpiles, but we're also talking about all the nuclear facilities, including some of these military facilities that have been secret up until this point. What do the Iranians get in return? Modest, reversible sanctions relief. That's what they keep repeating, that it's reversible.

So, they're not going to touch any of the things that Congress has passed, for instance, on Iran's oil exports, but they may be touching things like assets that are frozen overseas. Iran has about $100 billion in assets frozen overseas.

TAPPER: And as you know and you reported here, the progress seemed stalled a week ago. What changed and what got things going again?

SCIUTTO: Well, it depends on who you believe on why things fell apart a couple weeks ago. The Iranians say that there was a bait and switch, that the West came to them with a certain plan on Thursday. They thought they were close. Then, on Saturday, they came back, it was a harder plan.

And you remember, you had the French foreign minister coming out and saying, we have to make this tougher.

TAPPER: Right.

SCIUTTO: That's kind of water under the bridge as to who made it tougher, but, clearly, it was tougher to the point where they had to walk away for a bit, go back to their capitals. These administration officials say that's natural in a negotiation like this. You have to go home, kind of work things out.

But they do feel that those outlines, as I just described, appear to be close enough for both sides. There clearly is some excitement here about what's going to happen next week. That said, as you said, we have seen this before, so you have to go into it with a grain of salt.

But one thing that makes me believe there's something more substantive here is that there is pressure on both sides. The Iranians have to show some relief from this. They're sticking their necks out. And there's a political pressure on the American side, because they don't want new sanctions imposed, and there's really just a two- or three- week period that the administration can push that off. So now is the time.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you.

Let's bring in Ben Rhodes. He's the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications for President Obama. He joins us now from the White House.

Ben, good to see you. How close are you to a deal?


We narrowed the differences in the last round of talks in Geneva. We will get back together with the P5+1 in Iran next week in Geneva.

And we do believe that we can achieve an agreement, a first step towards an agreement that halts the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, rolls back some elements of that program in exchange for some modest relief.

But you never know. It's difficult, these negotiations. So we are going to aim to achieve agreement in Geneva. If we have to walk away from the table because we can't get the deal that we want, we are willing to do that as well.

TAPPER: When you talk about relief, you are talking about relief from the sanctions that the United States and the international community has imposed on Iran.

The Israeli government is out there saying that the relief is too much, the number is too high. Certain individuals in the Israeli government say it could be as much as $20 billion in relief. Can you give us an idea of the range of relief in terms of billions of dollars?

RHODES: Well, Jake, I can't give a specific number, but I can say that those estimates from the Israeli government have been much higher than anything that we are contemplating.

So, first of all, we are talking about much less than those estimates we have heard from some of those quarters in Israel. Secondly, though, Jake, it's very important to note that the core sanctions, the oil sanctions, the banking sanctions, will remain in place even after this first step of an agreement, as we negotiate over the next six months.

And Iran will lose more in revenue because of those enforced sanctions than it would gain from this relief. So, again, even as there will be some modest, limited relief for the Iranian government in exchange for the steps that they take, they will continue to face sanctions and they will lose far more in revenue than they will gain from this relief.

TAPPER: Do you trust the Iranians to uphold their end of the bargain? As you know, the White House has been saying for a long time that whether it's Ahmadinejad or Rouhani, the leader that we see on the television is not actually the leader of Iran. It's the mullahs pulling the strings, Khamenei and the like.

Can you trust Iran? It's the same people we have been dealing with for years.

RHODES: Well, Jake, we don't want to do a deal based on trust. We want to do a deal based on verification.

And I think the important point here is President Rouhani has said some things that are different. They have taken some steps that are helpful. We saw a positive sign yesterday in the IAEA report that indicated they hadn't installed certain new centrifuges in their program.

But in the deal that we're contemplating, again, what we're looking at is Iranian action to address their enrichment capacity, their enrichment stockpiles, their plutonium program and the reactor in Iraq, and far more intrusive inspections, in exchange for this limited relief as we then negotiate a comprehensive settlement.

And the important point here is that we would be able to turn off that relief if the Iranians aren't meeting their commitments. So, essentially, this is entirely reversible. So if the Iranians aren't meeting our requirements, the deal is off. That relief is terminated, and we will continue to not only enforce the sanctions we have in place. We would be willing to move to additional sanctions if the Iranians don't live up to their end of the bargain.

TAPPER: It will not surprise me at all to hear that you have a lot of skeptics and critics on Capitol Hill. I interviewed one of them, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia. He had this to say about a potential deal.


REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: You have the Arabs and Israelis join together in their sense that American foreign policy as it's played out in that potential interim agreement is something that is not helpful to the stability of the region.

And, in fact, those allies of ours are telling us to allow Iran the ability to continue to enrich or build a plutonium factory is a sure way to spawn nuclear proliferation and, God forbid, face a nuclear Iran.


TAPPER: Ben, there's the House Republican leadership saying that our allies in the region say this is going to destabilize the region. Your response?

RHODES: Well, Jake, by definition, we believe that this is going to make the situation more secure. And here's why.

We are not going to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue right now. It's going to take some time. We estimate six months. And the question is, as you're having that negotiation, do you want their program to advance or do you want to put the brakes on that program and roll it back?

That's what we're trying to do with this first-step agreement. And we would address some of the majority leader's concerns. He mentions the plutonium program. We are talking about working to halt the progress of that plutonium program at Arak as part of this first-step agreement.

He talks about enrichment. We're about how do we, again, make limits on the Iranian enrichment capacity, and how do we address their stockpile, neutralize a portion of it? So, we are getting at those concerns in the first step of an agreement. And it's a commonsense question. Why wouldn't you want to for the first time in a decade halt the progress of the Iranian program, while you then have a negotiation?

We think it would be far more destabilizing to allow the Iranians to move forward with their program as we have negotiations?

TAPPER: Ben Rhodes, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

RHODES: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: When we come back, the president's terrible, horrible, no- good, very bad week is coming to an end, but will his administration's -- quote -- "fumbling" of the Obamacare rollout cost the president more than just some personal embarrassment?

And, later, even an Academy Award-winning man like Matt Damon can have trouble getting attention when he wants it. Ahead, Damon tells me why he needs your help on his latest project.


TAPPER: Welcome back.

The politics lead now.

It's a crisis of confidence with the American people and with the president's own party. Today, the House passed the Keep Your Health Plan bill, which would give insurance companies the option of extending coverage plans through next year, plans that they were supposed to cancel, but now they're allowed to. They won't be complying with Obamacare. It's an odd little twist.

And while the president has promised to veto if the bill ever makes it to his desk, here's the kicker, 39 Democrats crossed party lines to push this bill through.

If you ask Republicans, President Obama's unforced errors on Obamacare have put his legacy on the line.


REP. FRED UPTON (R-MI), WAYS & MEANS CHAIRMAN: Across generations, presidencies are often associated with one famous utterance. "Ask not what your country can do for you", "the only thing we have to fear," "tear down this wall." And our current president will be no different, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it, period."


TAPPER: He left out "read my lips."

So, is this a presidency in crisis?

Let's bring in our panel, from CNN's "CROSSFIRE" Republican strategist S.E. Cupp, freshly married, congratulations.


TAPPER: President of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, and CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

So, Neera, you think Mr. Upton is making too big a deal out of this or does this really have the potential to be the line that people remember the president for saying, in the same way that Bush senior has "read my lips"?

NEERA TANDEN, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: So, I think -- look, I actually think most of what's energizing the issues right now are the fact that the Web site doesn't work. It is actually fueling the issue with the losses, because people can't see what their better options would be when they're better on the Web site itself. So, I think the big challenge here, it's a big challenge for people who believe that government should have a role, is for this Web site to work. If the Web site works, if the law is successful over the next year or so, or the next several months and into the next year, then I think that this will recede as an issue.

I don't think -- I think the president has generally had a lot of credibility with the American people. I think we shouldn't judge the entire moment -- the entire presidency for this.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He's underwater now. He's under water now on the honest and trustworthy numbers. It's totally flipped. He's lost 10 points since October.

And so, you know, now I think he's got to get his credibility back but he also has to prove competency, which was never, you know, everybody assumed, OK, you know, Barack Obama's a smart guy -- and the fact that he did not know and is clearly upset he did not know raises a question of competency because he should have known. Somebody should have told him about the disaster that they were facing on this Web site.

CUPP: Well, there's two issues there to both of your points. To the competency point, this is now becoming a pattern. He didn't know. He didn't know about the IRS scandal that was about to erupt just before his re-election campaign was set in November. He didn't know the scope of the NSA spying program and then had to apologize to his allies. He didn't know about the Obamacare glitches. Either he is severely understaffed and no one's really telling him about the hurdles coming up, or there's just a real lack of accountability. And so, there's the incompetence but then there's also the deception. Is he -- is he misleading us? Democrats wanted Bush impeached for misleading us. That's a real problem.

TANDEN: I think it's a great analogy to go to Bush, who lied about weapons of mass destruction around a war which is a very different thing. An IRS scandal, I think everything we know about that, quote- unquote, "scandal," is that it's a false scandal. I think it's a great issue as an example.

CUPP: I don't think that's true.

TANDEN: I think actually it is true. Look, look, look --

CUPP: He didn't think it was a false scandal. He wanted it investigated.

TANDEN: It was investigated. They had a result --

BORGER: But there are reasons --

TAPPER: Let's stick to the Obamacare issue.

BORGER: There are reasons you don't bring to the president certain things. He's the top of the pyramid. I can understand on IRS, for example. The minute that story were to go into the oval office it becomes a question of --

TAPPER: What did the president know and when did he know it?

BORGER: And did he try and manage it and did he try and deal with the IRS. That's a whole can of worms. If you're chief of staff looking at that, you're thinking maybe I'm not going to bring that to him because I need to protect him, right? On this, I don't think there's any such issue.

TANDEN: I totally agree. I absolutely agree that it is a big problem this Web site doesn't work. As an advocate of the law, I want the Web site to work. I think whoever's responsible for this, there needs to be accountability at the end of the day.

TAPPER: S.E., I want to ask, this Upton bill that passed the House today which would give insurance companies, allow them to extend these plans that have been canceled, John Boehner, according to "The National Review", John Boehner has said this is part of their strategy not to fix Obamacare but to get rid of Obamacare. Why not have a strategy to try to fix it?

CUPP: Well, certainly Republicans are going to need to fill in those blanks and I think they're going to be very surprised and caught sort of by surprise when and if Obamacare really does unravel and then there is no alternative. They're not offering anything up. I think for the first time in the past three years, it's a real possibility that Obamacare is gutted from Democrats, from Republicans, whomever, so much so that it needs to be completely fixed and altered, and Republicans better be the ones with those solutions or we're just going to look petulant.

TAPPER: Ten seconds, Neera, go.

TANDEN: I think the big challenge with the Upton bill is it actually raises costs for people. That's going to be the fine print. That's always been the problem with offering an alternative. It always makes the problem worse. Republicans have to own that.

TAPPER: Neera, the bride and Gloria, congratulations --

TANDEN: It's Neera, comma, the bride --

TAPPER: Thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD: a toy boat with a buzz. I'll talk to a senator who wants it pulled from the shelves.

And a massive museum heist in Egypt sets off a search for King Tut's sister.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now, it's time for the money lead.

Should kids be the target of high caffeine energy drinks? That's what some senators are now asking. This tweet was sent to Senator Dick Durbin and shows a toy being sold at Target with Rockstar energy drink slapped right on the front. That toy is made by Ronin Syndicate Toys and Action, a sport toy manufacturer who has other Rockstar energy products on their site.

Back in July, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing with energy drink leaders and asked who their target market was. Here's Rockstar's COO Janet Weiner.


JANET WEINER, CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER, ROCKSTAR, INC.: Rockstar always has been committed to not recommend it for children. And by that we mean under 12.


TAPPER: So, if the company is targeting consumers over 12, why put the brand name on a toy that's for kids ages 8 and up?

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal is one of the senators asking Rockstar for some answers and to take the brand off the toy. He joins me now from Hartford, Connecticut.

Senator, good to see you. Thanks for joining us. You sent a letter to Rockstar Inc. asking them to explain what's going on. We also tried to contact them. We were not able to connect with them.

What has Rockstar told you about this toy?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, Rockstar plainly is using a toy and a ploy to pitch their products to children. And that's very troubling because these products can be dangerous for children because of the high levels of caffeine and these kinds of marketing pitches aimed at children are one of the reasons why emergency room visits concerning these energy drinks are skyrocketing.

And we're asking this company and all the energy drink manufacturers to stop their pitches and marketing ploys to children using toys as well as social media and celebrities and athletic stars, the whole panoply of pitchers.

TAPPER: Now, to play devil's advocate, you know, parents play a role here, too. It says energy drink right on it. They should decide not to buy their kid the drink. They should decide not to buy their kid a toy that bears the name of the drink. Don't you think?

BLUMENTHAL: I agree. Parents have a very important role to play. I say that as a parent of four children and I believe that parents need to be more responsible, but you know, these companies are circumventing parents by using social media which often are not understood or overseen by parents.

And what's more, many of these children can buy these drinks on their own. There is no labeling. There are no requirements as there are, for example, for cigarettes, that the purchaser be above a certain age. So 12, 13, 14 year olds as well as even 9 year olds can buy these drinks on their own and that is tremendously troubling. So better labeling, better restrictions on purchasing is what's need.