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Interview With Senator Dean Heller; Dangerous Cold; Gates Doesn't Hold Back in Memoir; The Big Business of College Sports

Aired January 7, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Et tu, Bob Gates? Et tu?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Freezing? If only it were just freezing outside. Freezing would be like a tropical vacation with umbrellas in our drinks, compared to the misery many of us are living in right now. Is this now the worst of it?

In national news, you know who didn't believe in President Obama's Afghanistan strategy? President Obama, at least after a while. That's according to his own former secretary of defense, Robert Gates, in a shockingly critical new memoir.

And the sports lead. As long as college athletes can read X's and O's on a chalkboard, that seems good enough for many schools. On the day after the thrilling finish to the NCAA football season, a CNN investigation reveals that colleges are letting down their sports gods.

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

We will begin with the national lead. Now that we have all learned what a polar vortex is, will it please go away? Many Americans have never experienced cold this intense. it hasn't drop this low in 20 years in many parts of the country. Below-freezing temperatures were felt in all 50 states this morning, including Hawaii.

And areas from the Midwest through the Northeast struggle to get out of the single digits. I tell you, it's so cold, this is...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How cold is it?

TAPPER: Thank you very much. You're supposed to say, how cold is it?

It's so cold police believe an escaped prisoner in Kentucky turned himself in just to get warm. That's not a joke. That is true. New York City has never recorded a colder temperature on this date. It was four in Central Park earlier, four. I did not misspeak, four. And that's without the windchill, all of this thanks to the polar vortex, that swirling mass of arctic air hovering over the U.S.

There's a real very fear of frostbite in Chicago and many other parts of the country. In Northern Illinois, three Amtrak trains got stuck in snowbanks, standing 500 people, air travel of course still a mess nationally, more than 2,400 flights canceled just today.

Throughout this cold blast, CNN has been conducting a grand experiment on the effects of hypothermia on reporters. Erin McPike is one of our guinea pigs. She's standing by in Minneapolis, where temps have hovered around zero all day. Ted Rowlands is in Chicago, where it's even too cold for polar bears at the zoo.

First to you, Erin. Have you ever been this cold in your life?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, I don't think so, but it's not snowing here. And that's the saving grace. At least no one is wet. It's two degrees here right now. That's the warmest it's been all day.

The windchill feels like 13 below zero. It's going to get even worse tonight. Tomorrow, it will be about the same. Finally, things will look better on Thursday. However, this has been historic. There are some records that have been set here. So, let's talk through some of those.

A local homeless shelter that the Salvation Army runs saw 750 people last night. That's a record. Also, a hospital in this area said that they usually see 30 patients in a year for frostbite. And already since January 1, they have seen 25 patients. AAA also says their last record for servicing people in this area in a day was 2,500. That was set in a cold snap in 2007.

Just yesterday, they saw 3,000 people for some of the car troubles that they have been having in this area. Now, in Chicago, it is not quite as cold, but I'm sure it's no less miserable.

And that's where we find Ted Rowlands -- Ted.

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Erin, indeed, same level of misery. I can guarantee you that.

We're at Union Station in Chicago, where those Amtrak passengers finally made it here after being stranded overnight in their trains. Many of them started in California, finally ended up here. The cold is so bad that the ice on the roadways in and around the Chicago area has lost its effectiveness, the salt, rather, and it's turned to ice.

The commute this morning and this evening have been absolutely horrific. Jake, the good news is we are now above zero, and as sad as that sounds, it is actually feeling a lot better than it has the last two days where we have been consistently below zero.

TAPPER: All right, Ted Rowlands, Erin McPike, thank you. Stay safe.

Turning to the politics lead now, today, six Republicans crossed party lines to vote with Democrats to open debate on a bill that would restore long-term unemployment benefits to 1.3 million people, which dried up just before the new year.

And even Congress passed the bipartisan budget before Christmas, Democrats say they were not able to insert an extension into it. For the bill to end up on President Obama's desk, as he wishes, both the Senate and the House, of course, still have to pass it.

Nevada Senator Dean Heller was the first Republican to say he would vote with the Democrats. That earned him a handshake from Majority Leader Harry Reid on the floor afterward, the but not such a warm reception perhaps as he walked back through his fellow Republicans. Senator Heller looked like a man alone amongst his colleagues on the right. I'm not saying that our legislative body is like high school, but maybe Senator Heller should guard his pudding cup in the Senate cafeteria for a few days.

Now I want to welcome Senator Dean Heller, Republican from Nevada.

Senator, thanks for being here.

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: Jake, thanks for having me.

By the way, do I have a chance to turn myself in to get some warmth around here? Some people might like that.



TAPPER: Did you feed like you got a little bit of the cold shoulder by your colleagues?

HELLER: Oh, not really.

We had a lunch afterwards. And everybody understands. The unemployment rate now in Nevada is at 9 percent. It's 7.3 nationwide. But myself, Jack Reed from Rhode Island, both of us have high unemployment rates. And the message here that I was hoping to bring out first day back, first full day back from our recess was maybe Republicans and Democrats can actually work together to get good things done, good things done for the American people.

TAPPER: Is this going to pass the Senate?

HELLER: Well, I hope so.

Here is the issue to me. As long as the debate occurs, and I'm certainly hoping leadership on the other side now allows for amendments. There's a call for pay-fors in this particular piece of legislation.

TAPPER: The $6 billion, have it offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

HELLER: Trying to find amendments. There's a number of amendments that have been filed. If leadership on the other side allows that to happen, I think we will have more than enough votes in order for this to pass.

TAPPER: Speaker Boehner has said he doesn't think anything -- any extension should come before him without pay-fors, offsetting the spending with cuts elsewhere, and something to help create jobs.

Is there any way that anything that would meet those requirements for the House of Representatives could pass the Senate?

HELLER: Yes, absolutely. I have no doubt that if reasonable minds come together and we have this discussion...


TAPPER: I'm sorry. You talked about reasonable minds. I was talking about the Senate.


TAPPER: I don't know. Maybe you didn't hear me right.

HELLER: No, I truly do believe that reasonable people can come together, we can have a discussion on this, this conversation.

I don't mind a pay-for. If the pay-for is not there, I'm going to vote for it anyway, because I think there's a lot of people out there that are hurting. But I have introduced amendments for pay-fors in the past. I do support the pay-for. I think our deficit is getting out of control, and so I understand where the speaker is coming from.

And if we can have legislation to create jobs, I think that's important. If you want to solve unemployment problems, you create jobs. And so to have that sort of discussion, I'm not against it, obviously, and I don't think anybody else is either.

TAPPER: Well, as somebody who worked with a Democrat on this, why is there so much dysfunction? Why can't the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, come together? I know there are people who come to this town. I talk to some freshman senators who come in -- this is not you, so I don't want anyone to think that you told me this.

But senators come in and they are stunned Reid and McConnell don't talk. There is so little bipartisan cooperation. Can that actually change?

HELLER: Well, I'm not sure that it can happen in an election year. That's the problem, 2014, with the control of the Senate up in the air. I think we are going to see more partisanship, but I was certainly hoping we would come out of the box today and show some bipartisanship, which I think we did.

TAPPER: Do you think it hurts Republicans that they don't even take this up in the House?

HELLER: Well, I think it should be discussed. I do think it should be discussed.


TAPPER: When you say discussed, you mean voted on?

HELLER: Yes. I was hoping that there would be proposals. In fact, I will tell you, I was hoping that every Republican senator would have voted for the discussion. This wasn't the vote for the bill itself. It was a procedure of motion to have the discussion, and it would by my idea that everybody would support having this discussion, whether we talk about pay-fors, whether we talk about reforms in unemployment insurance.

There's a lot of discussions to have out there. And I think Republicans ought to talk about this, have this discussion. I want to send the message out that, for example, as Republicans, we're not anti-government. We're for reasonable government. We're not anti- taxes. We're for reasonable taxes. We're not anti-regulation. We're for reasonable regulations that doesn't hurt small businesses.

We can send that message out and send the right message to the American people that we care just as much about creating jobs, and, of course, helping those that need help and having a safety net out there as any Democrat.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, thank you so much. And I hope you appreciate that that I said Nevada, not Nevada. I know that's a big thing with you guys.


HELLER: I do appreciate that.

TAPPER: When we come back, he was convinced it would fail, harsh words from the former defense secretary on President Obama's lack of confidence in his own war strategy.

Two reports just out detail the surprising accusation in Robert Gates' new book.

Plus, they make millions for their schools. But would they even get in if they didn't play sports? A CNN investigation uncovers the shocking number of big-time college athletes who are reading at elementary school levels. Stay tuned.


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

Our other national lead today, President Obama's decision to keep Robert Gates as defense secretary was regarded at a time as an olive branch to Republicans worried about the then new commander in chief's distinct lack of military credential.

The Bush administration holder served two years under President Obama, helping maintain some continuity as the president took over stewardship of two wars. But now the former Defense Department chief is criticizing Obama's handling of the Afghanistan conflict.

"The New York Times"' Thom Shanker and "The Washington Post"'s Bob Woodward got ahold of Gates' new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." In the book, the former defense secretary describes President Obama as desperate to abandon the war effort, writing -- quote -- "The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

For the White House's reaction to the story and the book, let's go to CNN senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, has the White House said anything about these reports and this book?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, there is no official White House reaction at this point. I will tell you this.

But it's obviously unwelcome news. I did speak with one White House official who told me, really just highlighting the positive here, sort of I guess you would say picking the parts of reports of what is in this book by the former defense secretary and highlighting the positive, really.

One part from the "Washington Post" article written by Bob Woodward that describes in book Gates saying that President Obama was correct when it came to his chief Afghanistan policies and that Gates in the "New York Times" write-up of the book reportedly said he never doubts Obama's commitment to the troops.

Of course, Jake, you will notice absent from that is what was also said in the reportedly the same part of the book, that Gates said he did doubt the president's commitment to the mission, maybe not to the troops.

We have heard in the past Gates criticize President Obama. For instance, in Bob Woodward's 2010 book "Obama's Wars," he did say Gates talked about being tempted to walk out of an Oval Office meeting after a disagreement with Tom Donilon, then deputy national security adviser at the time, about a general, in a discussion about a general that was not named in the book.

But really, as you know, Jake, this really takes it to a whole new level that a former Cabinet official is making these criticisms while a president is still in office. I did speak with a former White House official, Jake, who told me that they feel that some of this is misrepresented, specifically a conversation between Hillary Clinton and the president talking about the political nature of not supporting the surge in Iraq.

TAPPER: All right, Brianna Keilar, thanks so much.

Is this kind of criticism from Bob Gates about selling books or settling scores or telling the truth or all of the above or none of the above?

Let's bring in David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of "Foreign Policy" magazine, and Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy for the American Enterprise Institute.

David and Danielle, thanks for being here.

I wanted to start by getting your gut reaction to what you have read in these stories from "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" about what is in the Gates book.

David, does it surprise you?

DAVID ROTHKOPF, CEO & EDITOR, FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE: No, I think people who have been close to the administration have been hearing about Gates' frustration for a long time. About six months ago, we started hearing that the memoir was going to be very tough on the president. And, you know, I think all we have to do is remember back at the beginning of the Obama administration, when he was appointed and Hillary was appointed, and people were hailing the president for having a team of rivals --


ROTHKOPF: -- that meant discordant voices, that meant a variety of opinions, and what you're seeing is there really were a variety of opinions in the middle of the Obama White House.

TAPPER: I think what is extraordinary is they would be voiced so strongly at this point in the Obama presidency?

ROTHKOPF: It's really unusual. I think it speaks to the degree of frustration that Gates felt. I think it speaks particularly to his frustration with the way he and the military commanders were treated by people within the administration, and, of course, look at the Middle East right now. We are rushing to the exit in Afghanistan, Iraq, where we rushed the exit, has now in worse shape than in five, six years. The region looks in tough shape. And so, his criticism is heightened a little bit by the fact that it seems to be borne out by the facts.

TAPPER: Danielle, let me read a couple others quotes from the book, according to "The Washington Post", on defense spending. Gates writes, "I was extremely angry with President Obama, I felt he had breached faith with me on the budget numbers." And on "don't ask/don't tell", he wrote, "I felt that agreements with the White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient."

Now, are these signs of ideological disagreements with the president, or something else, Danielle?

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: No, I think it's exactly what David characterized as, something that's familiar to most of us in Washington, which is that the White House basically is uninterested in the counsel of the president's own cabinet.

And so, you had frustrations from people like Gates, from people like Hillary Clinton, and frankly from every other cabinet official who ever had any opinion on anything, because they had no input at the White House and decisions were made not just without them -- because I don't think they were made so much without them, as without any respect for their input, particularly on questions, as Gates reports, of timing.

I don't think Gates had a big problem with the "don't ask/don't tell" question. He merely had a problem with how it was rolled out and the lack of regard that the White House had for the institution of the Pentagon and the people who worked there.

TAPPER: That's right, in the context I should have presented, which is not that Gates disagreed with "don't ask/don't tell", with repealing it, he agreed with that. He was upset because he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Admiral Mullen, at the time, were only give, I think, a day's heads-up.

While we're still waiting for afternoon to sign the security agreement with the United States, David, do you think this is Gates sending a message to the White House on how they can still change their strategy there? Is it a warning shot about heading to the exits too quickly? Or do you think it's just a memoir?

ROTHKOPF: I think it's just a memoir. I think he was going to -- you know, he would have written this six months, right six years from now, I think is particularly trenchant, though, given that we've got this agreement pending, you've got this struggle with the White House and Karzai right now.

One thing that it does, which is troubling, is it casts the president's light to double down in a particularly cynical way. If he didn't believe in being there, if he didn't believe in what the generals were saying, and he did commit tens of thousands more troops, hundreds or thousands of which ended dying or being injured in Afghanistan, then why did he do it? Was it just political? If it was just political, is that sufficient reason to put those lives at risk?

TAPPER: David and Danielle, I want to read one more quote, this is from Hillary Clinton, and get your reaction. "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions in front of me was as surprising as it was dismaying."

Danielle, your reaction? Obviously, I should say we have reached out to the White House. We have reached to Hillary Clinton's people and we have not yet gotten a response. When we do, we will obviously put that out there for everyone.

Danielle, your response to that story from the secretary?

PLETKA: Again, I think that anyone you talk to in Washington who's going to be frank with you is going to say, yes, that's right, these are things that have been well known for a long time. A lot of the opposition to the surge in Iraq was political. Everything was in the context of an election.

The problem is for the president and others who may seek to be president -- ahem -- that when we recognize that they are making these sorts of cynical decisions about national security, about our troops, it reflects extraordinarily poorly on them and on the decisions that they make. And as David said, if the president was so cynical to send troops in a surge which at least I certainly supported to Afghanistan without having any intention of actually securing victory in Afghanistan, that's enormously troubling. It fills me with, apart from anything else, just great sorrow about the leadership of this country and what our allies will estimate of the leaders of our country.

TAPPER: More to come on the book. I do want to close with this quote from Secretary Gates about Vice President Biden which is, "I think he's been wrong on nearly every issue over the past four decades." Quite a stunning thing for a secretary of defense to say about a sitting vice president.

David Rothkopf and Danielle Pletka, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up on THE LEAD, it's being called one of the biggest Social Security scams of all time, bilking taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the people accused, were ones those trusted to serve and protect.

Plus, Olympic skiers now have one less person to compete against on the slopes next month. That's our sports lead, and that's ahead.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

I'm Jake Tapper. Now, it's time for the sports lead.

It marks the end of an era in college football. The final national title game of the Bowl Championship series, which gets replaced next season by a playoff system. And much to the delight of fans everywhere, well, maybe with the exception of some in Alabama, the BCS did not go quietly into that good night.

Last night's championship matchup between the number one ranked Florida State Seminoles and the number two Auburn Tigers turned out to be the stuff of legend.

The Noles rallied back from an 18-point deficit, and with just seconds to spare, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston led his team to victory, scoring to go ahead and touchdown to put his team up 34-31, like something from a movie.

But regardless of the outcome, you might say both schools were winners before they even took the field. After all, just making it to a BCS game guarantees big, big bucks, for universities and their athletic programs. Given what a cash cow college football and basketball programs have become for some schools, it's not hard to understand why some go to great lengths to keep their programs strong and their athletes protected.

But are some universities admitting athletes, with no academic future, in order to give their sports programs a boost. Just last year, the University of North Carolina was accused of letting athletes saying they were involved in classes that never met. And once we started taking a closer look at the scandal, we realized the allegations at UNC may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to academics taking a backseat to athletics, at some of the most esteemed programs in the country.

CNN's Sara Ganim has much, much more.


SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The University of North Carolina is not just an athletic powerhouse with dedicated fans. It's also a top tier academic institution, but one academic counselor there, who spend years tutoring student athletes says too many of them can't even read.

MARY WILLINGHAM, LEARNING SPECIALIST: I mean, we may as well just go over to Glenwood Elementary right up the street and just let all the fourth graders in here and third graders in here.

GANIM (on camera): They can't read and there are no remedial classes, what's the option? To cheat?

WILLINGHAM: The other option is to cheat, that's correct, or to find some professor, some course of curriculum where there are professors, or there is little or no work expected of the student.

GANIM: Mary Willingham says there are athletes who come to the University of North Carolina who are reading at a third or fourth grade level. She says there's no way for them to succeed in a college classroom. The only place they can succeed here is on the football field.

(voice-over): Willingham is one of the few people we could find who is looking at the reading levels of athletes in the revenue-generating sports -- football and basketball.

WILLINGHAM: They're leaving here without an education. They're significantly behind, the level of reading and writing that's required.

GANIM: With the university's permission, she combed through eight years worth of test scores, and found that up to 25 percent of athletes in the revenue sports don't have the skills to take classes at a community college, let alone a competitive university like UNC.

Looking at 183 football and basketball players between 2004 and 2012, Willingham found that 8 percent were reading below a fourth-grade level and 60 percent were reading between a fourth and eighth grade reading level.

(on camera): We wanted to know, is this happening in other schools? The NCAA told us that in to 2012 alone, there were 30 football and basketball players who were admitted with very low test scores. Of course, they point out that's just a small percentage of the 5,700 athletes admitted that year who are playing those sports, but we wanted to know for ourselves. So we filed open records requests at 37 public universities across the country where open records laws apply. We asked for six years worth of data.

(voice-over): We got data back from 21 Division I universities, including top 25 ranked football schools like Texas A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Clemson. The results were startling. Most schools had between 7 percent and 18 percent of football and basketball players scoring so low on the reading portion of their exams, experts told us they would only be reading at an elementary level. That's an ACT score of 16 or less or below a 400 on the reading portion of the SAT.

But many of the universities had different explanations for low test scores. Like Texas, which said some athletes don't try very hard, aiming only to become NCAA eligible. Or Washington, which pointed out low scores may indicate learning disabilities. And Louisville, which said entrance exams are just one factor considered when admitting a student athlete.

You can read their full responses on

Not every school we asked would give us information. In fact about half refused or said they'd send the data after football season. Neither Florida State nor Auburn, which played in the BCS championship game, provided data.

Why did we first go to UNC? We were following up on a scandal from two years ago, when it was discovered that many student athletes were enrolled in classes that required little or no work.

Even though the NCAA said it found no athletic scandal, a professor was recently indicted for fraud, and UNC's own internal investigation found evidence of academic fraud.