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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

North Korea Planning Show of Force?; President Obama Meets With Tech CEOs; Interview With New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte; The Lowest Approval of His Presidency; A Show of Allegiance in North Korea

Aired December 17, 2013 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So President Obama today asked the CEO of Netflix for an advanced copy of next season's "House of Cards." He doesn't have it already? I guess the NSA does have its limits.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Where does your privacy stop and the government's need to know begin? Tech companies raided by the NSA for user data sent executives to the White House to ask the government and the president to back off.

The world lead. Want to make sure everyone attends a service in your father's memory? Well, executing your own uncle for disloyalty will get those RSVPs rolling in. Is North Korea planning a show of force after today's show of respect?

And the money lead, a massive $636 million prize in tonight's Mega Millions drawing. The jackpot keeps rolling up, but have you read the fine print? We think we know the reason nobody has won since October.

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

We begin with the national lead, and that big debate between security and your privacy. They are the superstars of the tech world, running companies that many of us use every single day, Apple, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Twitter and more, superstars Tim Cook, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer, Silicon Valley's biggest brains, all in the same room with President Obama.

He called them in ostensibly to talk about improving healthcare.gov, which might have been a good idea a few months ago, before October 1, and that is what they did talk about with senior White House officials for the first 45 minutes, according to one participant. This source tells CNN that the president and vice president arrived after that and spent the next two hours discussing the NSA surveillance programs with which these companies have been forced to comply.

Recently, many of these companies signed an open letter calling for reforms to the NSA's wide-reaching surveillance programs and transparency. Those programs have treated America's tech giants like a grab bag from which to mine user data, e-mails, chats, videos, photos, you name it. And much of the time, the NSA isn't asking for the data. It's telling. Here are just a few specifics. From Facebook, the NSA mines profiles or connections, according to "The New York Times." From Google, the NSA uses cookies to pinpoint hacking targets, according to "The Washington Post." From Apple, the NSA made thousands of customer data requests and told Apple to keep quiet about it.

This meeting comes just a day after a federal judge ruled that the NSA's phone record collection probably violates the Constitution. Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed these programs to the world, applauded the court ruling yesterday, presumably from Russia.

He also sent an open letter to the people of Brazil offering to help investigate U.S. surveillance against them and reminding the world that he's still looking for political asylum. Now, the tech firms invited to the White House today released a joint statement just a few minutes ago.

It reads -- quote -- "We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform."

I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, the president's meeting with all these tech gurus. It was a closed meeting, but what details can you give us about what these executives were pushing for?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it was a long meeting, obviously, and they covered a lot of ground on it.

A participant in the meeting telling CNN that they talked about a number of things, including bulk collection, so that broad blanket collection of metadata, Internet usage, phone calls, as well as they talked about the privacy law that governs this type of surveillance. They talked about the secret court that grants the warrants for this type of surveillance.

And they also talked about reforming the agreements between different countries over how to share information across borders, obviously, because a lot of these companies that were represented here today are multinational companies. So, really, the bottom line for them today was the bottom line, because a lot of customers have been very alarmed about the fact that the government is essentially using them as an infrastructure for spying, so that's not good for them economically.

And that's one of the reasons why last week, Jake, they wrote an open letter to President Obama and lawmakers voicing their concerns and why they came here today arguing for transparency.

TAPPER: Also an announcement from the White House today that a Microsoft executive is taking over the healthcare.gov fix.

KEILAR: Yes, that's right. Kurt DelBene, a former top executive for Microsoft, he is going to be coming in we understand toward the end of January to replace Jeff Zients, who was put in place rather hastily after the failed launch of healthcare.gov.

He was, as you know, supposed to go and be President Obama's, one of his top economic advisers in the new year. That's going to be delayed about a month until the end of January. But DelBene will be replacing him. And he has committed to being in place for the first half of next year, so it really just goes to show you that even though some improvements have been made to the Web site, there is still a long way to go. It's still a work in progress.

And that's why he is going to be coming in to try to shepherd this to success through. It's really an important period because the enrollment process for these exchanges and for healthcare.gov goes through the end of March.

TAPPER: Brianna Keilar, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

We're inching closer to having an actual budget passed in Congress, which is sadly a monumental feat these days. The deal, which would fund the government for two years, passed a procedural vote earlier today 67-33. We are expecting a final vote in the Senate tomorrow.

Twelve Republicans joined with Democrats to move forward with the bill but Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire voted against it. She opposes the deal. She joins me now from Capitol Hill.

Senator Ayotte, good to see you again.

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Good to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: I know part of the reason you oppose this budget is because of these military retiree cuts, which we will get to in a second.

But I want to talk about a broader issue first. And let's listen to a colleague of yours, one with whom you often agree, Senator John McCain. He spoke on the Senate floor just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I have concerns about the budget deal. Everybody I think, does, because the nature of the way business is done. But to somehow vote against it without an alternative to keep the budget -- keep the government from shutting down, then I think lacks some intellectual integrity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your response to Senator McCain? What's the alternative?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, the deal includes cuts to current military retirees, including those who have been retired because of a disability, so if they had their legs blown off in Afghanistan, we're now going to cut their cost of living increase.

It's wrong. And, by the way, that's about $6 billion. I already filed two amendments -- unfortunately, those won't be taken up -- that will pay for this cost to our military retirees. We are going to spend trillions of dollars over the next decade. It's absurd to suggest that we have to shut down the government just to protect those who have taken the bullets for us and have sacrificed the most for our country, who are singled out in this deal.

The federal employees actually, the changes to their retirement apply only to new hires. This is wrong in terms of the priorities of the nation.

TAPPER: Would you rather see a partial government shutdown than see this budget passed with these cuts to veterans benefits?

AYOTTE: There's not going to be a government shutdown, Jake. It's $6 billion of this deal. We could figure this out quickly if there was interest on both sides of the aisle. There's no reason to shut the government down. That is a false choice.

As you know, I have already found two myself, and that didn't take me long to do. So the notion that we couldn't get together on a bipartisan basis, particularly to protect our disabled veterans who are going to see a cut to their retirement, the COLAs that they should receive under those, I think we can do that.

And, by the way, people are so anxious to get home for the holidays, how about we work a little harder here and stay longer if we have to, to resolve this on behalf of our men and women in uniform? This is very important to them. And given what they have done to our country, I think we could do that.

TAPPER: Hard to disagree with that. But let me play devil's advocate for a second, because I have heard some proponents of this budget argue that this is a commonsense reform, it reduces annual cost of living adjustments in veteran pay by 1 percent. But I'm told it's not for those who are disabled. You're saying it is.

AYOTTE: Well, it is. It is.

TAPPER: OK.

AYOTTE: OSD, the Defense Department, this morning told me and told my office after we pushed them for an answer that it applies to disabled veterans' retirements as well. So, it's absolutely wrong.

TAPPER: OK.

But, in any case, it applies to veterans probably when they retire around 40 until they turn -- after about 20 years of active service, and then when they're in their 60s, the COLA increase is back again. Now, people are painting this as a commonsense reform. And, obviously, there should be other reforms that take place in other parts of the government. But is your position that there should never be any changes to veterans benefits?

AYOTTE: Well, no, here's my question. Why is it in this entire budget deal that they are the only group that gets cuts to their current benefits, of all the people we would cut first, our veterans, our disabled veterans, whereas, the federal employees, it only applies to new hires?

I don't understand their priorities here. So it's one thing if there's some form of shared sacrifice that we're looking across the government. And make no mistake, what this does for An e-7, an E-7 who is enlisted, retires at age 40, it could mean $72,000 in loss until age 62.

That's a lot of money for someone whose average retirement is roughly $25,000 a year with a family.

TAPPER: No, it's a fair point. It's a fair argument.

How do you respond to critics who say, look, recent food stamp cuts affected somewhere around 900,000 veterans, many of them probably in more dire need than some of these veterans you're standing up for now? Where were you on those food stamp cuts?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, where are they on these current cuts to their military retirements that they have earned for fighting for our country?

I don't understand why all of a sudden we're going to turn this around and say, let's cut some more from our veterans. I think that we can fix this on a bipartisan basis. You know, this is the right thing to do and it's $6 billion in trillions of dollars in spending over the next decade. Why not stay through Christmas to fix this? I'm willing to do that.

TAPPER: All right, well, I'm willing to cover it.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, thank you so much.

AYOTTE: Thanks.

TAPPER: Keep up the fight. We appreciate it.

AYOTTE: Thank you. Appreciate it.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: If approval ratings were like limbo bars, the president's back would be hurting from trying to wiggle under this. How low can he go?

And do you take your vitamins every day? You might as well be swallowing Tic Tacs, for all the good they're doing, if a number of studies are right. That's coming up ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In the politics lead now: the White House not exactly ending the year on a high note. A new poll from "The Washington Post"/ABC News puts the president at the worst public approval rating of his presidency -- 43 percent approve.

And, oh, what a difference a year makes. Last December in the weeks before his second inaugural, the same poll had him at 54 percent. It's an 11-point slide. The biggest hit may be on the public's perception of how capable President Obama is at helping the middle class.

Let's bring in today's panel, the former Republican Governor of Minnesota and current president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable Tim Pawlenty, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas and chair of the It's My Business Coalition, Blanche Lincoln, and CNN political commentator and Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker," Ryan Lizza.

So, here's what's most striking. We all know his approval ratings are low but on the question of who could do a better job for the middle class -- just 46 percent say the president. That's still a teeny bit more than the Republican Party. But last year, the president had a 26-point advantage on this question, 26 to now six points.

Ryan, what happened?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, 2013 was essentially a wasted year for Obama. I mean, if you compare with what he ran on in 2012 and what he got accomplished, the score card doesn't look so good, right? Immigration reform got through one chamber of Congress, not the other. Most of his economic ideas have not been instituted into law, including this package that -- the small package today but that's not what he really campaigned on.

And if you look at things like climate change and implementation of health care, big unknowns, question marks and health care a bit of a disaster at least in the short term.

So, he's had a year like George W. Bush had in 2005, the first year of his second term.

Now, can he turn it around? Sure he can. I think his fortunes will be about the improving economy. And there's a lot of good economic news coming out right now and 2014-2015, if the economy turns around, those numbers that we saw will turn around.

TAPPER: Governor Do you buy Dr. Lizza's diagnosis?

LIZZA: Dr. Lizza, well, of course.

TAPPER: I had to give him a title.

LIZZA: Exactly.

TAPPER: I've got a senator and a governor. Figure I'll make him a doctor, why not?

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: Yes. Well, obviously, the two biggest kahunas since the poll benchmark a year ago has been this -- a halting recovery, most recently a little better but for most of it, pretty laggard in terms of the impact. I think people thinking this is not as good as we thought it was or he promised.

And two, of course, is Obamacare, not just the promise of it during the campaign but the reality of it, including the launch.

So, I think those are the two main reasons why he's suffered in the polls recently.

TAPPER: And, Senator Lincoln, looking to the 2014 midterms which I know a lot of us are doing already. Two months ago, Democrats had an eight-point advantage on the who do you prefer generic Democrat versus generic Republican after the shutdown. Two, it's two points, 47-45 within the margin of error.

Would your Democrats, your fellow Democrats, should they be worrying?

FORMER SEN. BLANCE LINCOLN (D), ARKANSAS: Well, I think it's going to be tough for some Democrats, obviously in the South, and some of those that those Democrats have a tough break like that.

TAPPER: Your former colleagues, Pryor, Landrieu, you don't have to name all of them.

LINCOLN: We know who they are. It's tough races. It's a tough area in the country. But I think, really, you're talking about middle class. And I think the biggest thing there is jobs. The fact is, nobody is talking about jobs, nobody is talking about creating jobs, nobody is talking about putting the economy back on track anymore. And the middle class and others are feeling it.

I mean, there has been some good economic news but the fact is there could be so much more if we were really focused on it. And the White House isn't talking about it. You know, he does still fall behind Congress. I mean, he has fallen but he hasn't fallen that far.

TAPPER: Oh, no, he's not as unpopular as Congress is.

LIZZA: That's hard to beat right now.

TAPPER: Yes, Congress, it's down to blood relatives and paid staff.

LIZZA: If you want to get an idea of how frustrated Obama is with the year he had and his inability to get anything done, I don't know if you saw it, but today, he was joking with some of the tech executives and he told the guy from Netflix, he made a positive comment about the Kevin Spacey character in "House of Cards."

TAPPER: A ruthless guy.

LIZZA: Who, by the way, is a murderer.

TAPPER: He's a murderer. He killed a congressman from Pennsylvania.

LIZZA: And Obama apparently noted that he liked the efficient way he got things done in Washington on "House of Cards." That's how bad it is for Obama, he's now -- he's now comparing himself with a murderer.

TAPPER: So, let's talk about Congress, because they are about to pass something. It looks like this budget deal is actually going to go through, despite the objections of people like Senator Ayotte. Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly coming together, it looks like, certainly happened in the House, probably in the Senate, to support this passage.

Is that going to help the economy? Is it going to send the right signal to investors? What do you think, Governor?

PAWLENTY: Well, Jake, business leaders like certainty so any sort of certainty that you can signal to the market and bring to the market, it helps. Now, it's not the only factor but certainty in the market helps. This deal brings some closure to some lingering issues. It's not pretty, it's not elegant, it's ugly. But the news, the headline really is Republicans and Democrats actually agreed on something and it may be hopefully a down payment to making some more progress.

There are elements of the deal that are problematic, obviously, as your previous guest highlighted. But overall, the fact they can agree on anything and avoid another crisis is newsworthy.

TAPPER: We only have a couple minutes but I want to ask about this interesting story. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is reportedly getting into the news business. He's going to launch "The Huckabee Post". And it's not --

LINCOLN: It isn't (ph) getting into the news business.

TAPPER: Well, I guess -- that's true. He's been hosting his own show on FOX and he's --

LINCOLN: And radio.

TAPPER: And he's been doing radio commentary for a long, long time. He has show business in his blood.

But have you ever been tempted, I guess you're kind of the pundit here -- but have you ever been tempted to be like a Charles Foster Kane, I would like to own a newspaper to really take control of a media organization?

LINCOLN: Never.

TAPPER: Never?

LINCOLN: No. No. No desire.

Mike is great. I'm on his radio program a lot. He and I worked well together, bipartisan when I was in the senate and he was governor of the state, but I have never had a desire. I'll leave that up to you guys.

TAPPER: What about you?

PAWLENTY: Well, anything that Mike Huckabee does I think is virtuous and terrific. He's a great guy. If he did a blog or his version of "The Huffington Post", I'm sure it would be funny, it would be quippy, it probably get a big readership. And more power to him.

LIZZA: The Pawlenty post.

TAPPER: The Pawlenty post --

PAWLENTY: That would be blood relatives.

TAPPER: You could merge the "Pawlenty and Lincoln Post" to that (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

PAWLENTY: We could.

TAPPER: Ryan, Governor, Senator, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Still to come, top brass attend the ceremony in North Korea for Kim Jong-un's late father. We know his uncle couldn't make it because he's dead, but where was his aunt? And when s Dennis Rodman arriving?

Plus, you may have a better chance of hearing Lee Greenwood or Kate Smith on Pyongyang radio. But you're still hoping to win the mega millions jackpot tonight, aren't you? Admit it.

Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for the world lead. North Koreans, you are cordially invited to say good-bye to your dearly departed supreme leader. Did I say invited? I meant ordered.

Kim Jong-un presided over a ceremony marking the second anniversary of the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il. The top brass, those who have survived the regime's most recent purge flanked him and officials from every level of power appeared to be there -- possible show of allegiance to their new dear leader after he had his own uncle put to death, accusing him of being a traitor.

That uncle married into the family. He was hitched to Kim's aunt, who reportedly survived the purge, but she was not at today's event. Oh, and Dennis Rodman is reportedly heading back to North Korea this week because -- of course he is.

I want to bring in our Anna Coren standing by live in Seoul, South Korea.

Anna, did this ceremony give us any clues about the shifts in the regime behind the scenes?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, it was a rare opportunity to really see who was in and out of Kim Jong-un's inner sanctum, if you like, following last week's brutal purge of his uncle. Interestingly, the uncle's allies were present at the ceremony. No sign of his widow, although there are extensive reports that she is quite ill. But as you say, he was flanked either side by the leaders of the military and also the workers party, putting out this united front but behind the scenes, it is obviously a very different story. Tales of instability, of a power struggle and an alleged coup which is why according to analysts, Kim Jong-un actually executed his uncle in the way that he did.

But, certainly, this was a man who was second in command, a mentor to the 30-year-old. You have to remember that Kim Jong-un is the youngest head of state. But it just goes to prove that no one is untouchable, not even family members.

TAPPER: And, Anna, what's fascinating about this obviously, Kim was very public about the execution of his uncle, with all the photographs, the announcement, the specific accusations, the perp walk. I know there are a lot of fears that the saber-rattling will come ahead of a show of force.

What's the feeling there in South Korea?

COREN: Yes, absolutely. You mention that the public display of this execution, this is really quite unprecedented except if you go back to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung the founder of North Korea, who did this in the late '50s and '60s and made those executions quite public.

You know, this is about Kim Jong-un taking control of the situation, really I guess controlling the information and certainly the images that get out to the international community. But certainly, as far as people here in South Korea are concerned, you know, there is a real feeling that there will be further military provocation.

This is something that North Korea does whenever there is instability in Pyongyang, they either test, you know, the nuclear -- carry out nuclear tests, I should say, or conduct rocket launches to increase or advance their nuclear weapons program, which as you know is of great concern to the international community.

TAPPER: Lastly, Anna, we know Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star, is headed to the hermit kingdom tomorrow. Has there been any mention of this arrival in the North Korean press?

COREN: Yes, Jake, not as yet, although it is very early here on the Korean peninsula. There are some reports, however, that Dennis Rodman has already arrived in Beijing with his entourage, although we are trying to get confirmation of that. But Dennis refers to Kim Jong-un as his close friend, as a good guy, that this is not a political trip, that he's merely traveling with a documentary team to train a North Korean basketball team

But certainly this -- in the past at least, Dennis Rodman has offered to be a mediator, if you like, between Barack Obama and Kim Jong-un, not something the U.S. government has taken him up on. But we don't really know whether or not he will actually be meeting with North Korea's supreme commander. Jake, you would have to think that neither of these people would miss such an opportunity to get it out to the world as what they're up to. TAPPER: No, they seem to like the photo ops.

Anna Coren in Seoul in South Korea, thank you so much.