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Interview With New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone; Winter Storm; Chris Christie Inaugurated; Interview with Mayor Brian Stack of Union City, New Jersey; McDonnell, Wife Indicted

Aired January 21, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to Trenton, New Jersey. Come for the scandal. Stay for the horrific weather.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead, how far away is spring? Almost two months exactly. Well, temperatures are plummeting, as more snow piles on to what is becoming a long, hard winter. I can tell you as I stand here suppressing the shiver in my voice, it is brutal out here.

The politics lead, Governor Chris Christie, today is the first day of the rest of your administration. The governor and possible presidential hopeful ignoring the controversies currently plaguing his office and attempting to turn the page to his new term.

And the world lead. All eyes are on Russia as authorities try to track down so-called black widows who may be part of a plan to attack the Olympic Games. But we will talk to one congressman who is in Sochi right now, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who says the greatest threat to Americans is much closer to home.

Welcome to THE LEAD, coming to you live from Trenton, New Jersey, today, where the second inauguration of Governor Chris Christie took place earlier just right there in the building behind me. And we will get to that in a second, but I cannot ignore the reason that I can barely feel my toes right now.

Take a look at the cannon salute for Governor Chris Christie here earlier. With all the snow, that and the snow, it almost feels like a scene General Washington's legendary long winter in Valley Forge in 1777. New Jersey just one of the states getting slammed by this vicious winter storm.

This is the scene in our nation's capital today, D.C., of course, never a city that misses a chance to call a snow day. That city is at a standstill. Federal offices are closed. The White House canceled its briefing today. The scene in New York City. Pretty much all the major cities on the East Coast are in for it today. And air travel, of course, a complete mess. Nearly 3,000 fights have been canceled just so far today.

Now, usually, I'm in the warm studio tossing out to our freezing reporters out in the field, with a little schadenfreude. Today, I'm feeling their pain. CNN is covering this storm for you across several different states. Our Zain Asher is standing by in New York City. Margaret Conley is at La Guardia Airport. Jennifer Gray of course is standing by in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Let's start with you, Zain. how bad is it where you are?


It's not as bad as I predicted earlier. It's actually a lot lighter. The snow isn't coming down as heavy as you predicted. However, we are feeling the wind. But I will tell you that some time between now at 10:00 we're expecting roughly eight to 12 inches of snow. But then you add to that the windchill factor and it will feel below freezing and then the wind gusts, 35 miles an hour.

So, despite the sanitation workers working over time, there is a chance that you could wake up tomorrow if you live in New York City look outside your window and see almost a foot of snow. But one thing I will tell you is that if you have a choice between taking a car and using mass transit, it really is all about mass transit.

The Long Island Railroad is putting out more trains and the MTA also as well, especially during rush hour. One thing I will say that Mayor de Blasio did emphasize is that if you see a homeless person, someone who needs help, it's important that you call through on one. Obviously, nobody should be outside in these conditions.

My colleague Margaret Conley will have more on flight cancellations -- Margaret.

MARGARET CONLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Zain, thank you very much.

Here at La Guardia, airlines have been operating about 40 percent today. At La Guardia specifically, there were 690 cancellations. That's more than double the cancellations from this morning. We spoke with the deputy general manager of La Guardia, and she said that the last flights are expected to come right around now at 4:00. They are going to land here, and they're going to turn around and they're going to depart.

We're not going to expect to see any more flights take off from La Guardia until this storm blows over. Looking around the airport right now, a lot of the stores have already started to close. They are sending employees home so they can get back safely.

A lot of the restaurants have also closed down and a lot of airlines have sent their employees home as well, so another reminder from the TSA, if you are planning to fly, check those flight schedules before you make your way to the airport.


TAPPER: And now to the politics lead and the real reason I'm standing here in the snow in Trenton, New Jersey. Just behind me, that is where Governor Chris Christie was sworn in for a second term and he gave his second inaugural address. Christie's inaugural committee says that the snow forced them to cancel his bash this evening on Ellis Island.

In his speech, the Republican found this weather just as hard to ignore as I'm finding it right now.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: It's only fitting that in this administration, with more hurricanes, snowstorms, flooding and disaster of the natural sort of any administration I can remember in my lifetime, that we begin the second term in the same way.



TAPPER: Now, that seemed to be a literal statement, but it easily could be taken figuratively as well.

Christie was riding high in November when he won reelection in a landslide. Now, since the victory, however, the country learned about the so-called Bridgegate scandal. And of course there have been other questions about his office's use apportionment of Hurricane Sandy relief funds and other questions.

Brand-new polling from Quinnipiac University shows Christie's approval numbers taking a big hit. His favorability rating was just last month 47 percent and now it's down to 33 percent. What about his hopes for 2016 if he runs for president? Well, in November, 49 percent of those surveyed thought Christie would make a good president. Now that number is down to 35 percent.

With those late first-term controversies hanging over him, Governor Christie hearkened back today to his wide margin of victory in November and claimed that as a mandate.


CHRISTIE: -- who affirmed this course. It was not a vocal plurality like four years ago. No. This time, it was the largest and loudest voice of affirmation that the people of our state have given to any direction in three decades.



TAPPER: Unity was also a theme of Governor Christie's speech. He called on the people of New Jersey and maybe the nation to put aside their differences and ignore the constant spin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRISTIE: New Jersey can really be one state. We have to be willing to play outside the red and blue boxes that the media pundits put us in.


TAPPER: Now, it seems like we have heard something like that before. In fact, Christie sounded themes that reminded me a bit of another politician. What was his name again?


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.



TAPPER: Echoes from then Illinois Senator Barack Obama in Christie's remarks today. Read into that what you will, and, rest assured, many will.

Christie did not directly mention any of his current controversies in his speech today. Remember, he has the Bridgegate scandal and then there's an audit into his office's use of Sandy funds in tourism ads featuring the governor and his family before the election, and of course accusations from the mayor of Hoboken that his lieutenant and another state officials threatened to withhold Sandy funds if she didn't support a commercial development project in her city, which of course the governor and the lieutenant governor denied.

Today, the state Assembly and Senate announced that they are combining their investigations into whether Christie abused his power. Some of Christie's critics were in the crowd today for his inauguration. As Christie shakes hands with former New Jersey governors, you can see there Democratic New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone applauding.

And the congressman joins me now.

Congressman, thanks so much for being here. Good to see you.


TAPPER: Kind of an unusual situation for an interview about politics, but I appreciate your heartiness.

What did you think of the speech? He didn't mention the scandals at all. He was looking forward and talking about unity and being bipartisan.

PALLONE: Well, his speech was inspirational. That's how inaugural speeches generally are. And he stressed bipartisanship, which I think was good.

I thought it was a good speech. But, of course, it doesn't really talk much about issues or the future of the state in terms of specifics, which I always like to see.

TAPPER: Now, we have talked in the past on the show about Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. And you have talked about that there should be an investigation into claims that she's making that Christie's office withheld Sandy relief funds.

I want to play something for you that Mayor Zimmer said eight months after Hurricane Sandy.


DAWN ZIMMER (D), MAYOR OF HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY: I was personally stunned with how Congress handled that and appreciate Governor Christie kind of stepping in and crossing all -- you know, reaching across the table and saying, like, we have got to do this. This is ridiculous.


TAPPER: So there is Mayor Zimmer praising Chris Christie. Not a surprise, because we have seen her -- throughout 2012, she praised him -- 2013, rather, she praised him in tweets and publicly.

But this is -- what she just said, what you just heard her say was after this supposed heartbreaking moment. When you are trying to discern who is telling the truth here, and it seems to me that you think Dawn Zimmer is telling the truth, how do you reconcile that comment and all the other positive things she said about Governor Christie?

PALLONE: Well, I think she was talking about how difficult it was for us to get the Sandy care package passed. It took almost 60 days.

And I worked with Governor Christie myself at the time almost daily, two or three times a day, trying to get the money and get the legislation passed. He was very helpful with that, no question.

But the fact that it was so difficult to get the Sandy money is all the more reason we why have to make sure it's spent properly, and that's my concern. You know, when Dawn Zimmer, who I think is a very credible person, is saying that, you know, the governor's office was trying to link a development project to Sandy aid, I think that's really bad, deplorable and maybe -- and probably illegal.

And, of course, I have always also been concerned about the TV ads, because that was a $25 million campaign that was paid for with Sandy money, $2 million more than the low bidder, because the bidder they chose said they would put him in the ads. And that $2 million could be used for my constituents, because, remember, a lot of my constituents still haven't gotten their Sandy money to rebuild their homes or their businesses.

TAPPER: I appreciate that.

How do you answer your critics who say you describe this as a federal probe, a federal investigation, and then the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development put out a statement basically saying, look, this is an audit, we are looking for it, but it's not a probe, it's not an investigation?

Some people said that you perked it up a little.

PALLONE: Well, they use different terms.

The inspector general at one point used the term investigation, audit. Look, the bottom line is the inspector general doesn't get involved with these things unless they think there's a real possibility that something is wrong.

And this was a result of the "Asbury Park Press" investigation, which I asked the inspector general to follow up on. And no one is denying really at this point that it wasn't costing more and that the low bidder was the one that wouldn't put the governor in the ad. I think something smells, I have got to be honest. But let them look into it and see what the inspector general finds.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Frank Pallone, Democrat of New Jersey, thank you for braving the weather here. We appreciate it. We will see you soon.

PALLONE: Thanks a lot.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: He's one of Chris Christie's biggest supporters and he's a Democrat -- why one New Jersey mayor is standing by the Republican governor. That's coming up next.

Plus, a follow-up to that shocking story we brought you yesterday, dolphins trapped in a cove desperate to break free. Now dozens are dead and more have been sold into captivity, and supporters of this hunt are taking aim at Caroline Kennedy for daring to speak up.

We will be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD from Trenton, New Jersey, where Chris Christie was just sworn in for a second term as governor just a few hours ago.

It was not just his strong relationship with Republicans on this blue state that led to his landslide victory last year, but also the swell of support from New Jersey Democrats. Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider, Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long and Union City Mayor Brian Stack were among the many vocal backers of Governor Christie during his second run for office, all of them Democrats.

Stack was quoted by "The New Jersey Star Ledger" last years as saying, quote, "He's been a governor who is truly responsive. I mean, you call him, he calls you back the same day. And he'll tell you if he can do something or he can't do it. No other governor would call you at 4:00 in the morning and say, 'Brian, I'm watching Channel 12 right now and I see a big fire.' Where do you find that?" Mayor Stack said. In the midst of recent allegations against Christie's office about strong-arming and political retribution, many of these Democrats have decided to stand by their man.


TAPPER: And joining me now is one of them, Union City Mayor Brian Stack.

Mayor Stack, thanks so much --

MAYOR BRIAN STACK (D), UNION CITY, NJ: Thanks for having me, Jake.

TAPPER: -- you for braving the cold and coming out to this Star Wars- esque planet. I expect tauntaun to run by.

How do you think Governor Christie did in his inaugural address?

STACK: I think he did great, Jake. I think he stayed right to his word and I think he stayed to his point of why he was re-elected as governor of New Jersey. He stayed on point, touched upon issues that are bread and butter issues to the voters of New Jersey. I think he did really well.

TAPPER: But he's taken a big hit in support among Democrats and independents for these controversies, these scandals over the last few weeks. Has your confidence in him been shaken at all when you see the bridgegate revelations, what you hear from Mayor Zimmer, from Hoboken?

STACK: I'll tell you something -- I don't believe the governor knew anything that was going on with the bridge, Jake. I really don't. We all have staff members that sometimes do things that we're not proud of. You can't be around everyone all the time and police them all the time. I don't think Governor Christie, all those responsible should be held accountable for that.

As for Mayor Zimmer in Hoboken, I mean, I just think the story is far- fetched, to be honest with you.

TAPPER: You don't believe her?

STACK: I don't, I don't. My relationship with the governor and his staff and this administration has been one of the best, Jake. I've been mayor of Union City 13 years, going on 14 years, I've been a state senator. My relationship has been great. I've never had strong-arm tactics.

In fact, they've gone in a way to be helpful.

TAPPER: The picture that's being painted by Democrats right now is that this is a guy if you're on his side, he does things for you. If you're not on his side, that's when the bullying comes in.

You are somebody who has been on his side. Your city has benefited. You got a -- Union City got a $2.9 million grant from the Port Authority. Doesn't that fit in, in some ways, with this picture that the Democrats are painting?

STACK: It doesn't, Jake. I've never been strong-armed. I went to the governor, when I was going to endorse him for re-election, I went to him.

Just remember, the last time I supported Jon Corzine and that was a huge mistake. He didn't do anything. He was never responsive, and being a fellow Democrat, he was never responsive.

I think Christie has done something. He's reached across the aisle and said, look, I'm looking to work with everyone.

I've never experienced any strong-arm tactics. As for the grant for Union City, we deserve it. Union City deserves. We should get a grant. Jersey City should be getting grants from the Port Authority.

I deal with pollution and I deal with overflow out of a Helix for the Lincoln Tunnel. We're a feeder community. And that's something I fought for for years. And Governor Christie has been the only one that stepped up to the plate in the Port Authority and said Union City deserves it. And we've done the work.

TAPPER: What about meetings to benefit Jersey City suggesting that when he did not endorse Governor Christie, meetings to benefit Jersey City were canceled by the governor's office?

STACK: I mean, I can't speak to that. I don't really know what happened there. I don't why they were canceled. But I can only speak about my relationship with him and it's been a good one.

TAPPER: And you're a capital D Democrat, you're proud to be a Democrat.

STACK: Absolutely.

TAPPER: It's not like next week, I've got to turnaround and go --

STACK: No, Jake, one thing about me --

TAPPER: Have you gotten any heat for being so supportive of Chris Christie?

STACK: Sure, sure. All of the Democrats in Trenton don't like the fact, but I do what's right for my constituents. I wasn't elected -- I ran as a Democrat, Jake, but I was never a Democrat type guy where I'm one way, Democrat or Republican. I represent the people and that's what is important here.

Governor Christie has respected that. We don't agree on every issue. I'm out there in gay marriage. I'm a strong supporter of the millionaires tax.

We don't agree on every issue, but we've come together. I think that's what's important.

Honestly being a governor, I think he's one of the best we've had in New Jersey.

TAPPER: And if he runs for president, will you support him?

STACK: I'd be inclined to support the governor, I think it would be a great for New Jersey and I think he'd be a great president. But I think right now, his job has got to be focus on New Jersey. I don't think the presidency should even come up right now. I think it should be focused on New Jersey, focused on what we need to put more jobs out there and do what he talked about today.

TAPPER: Can he bounce back from this? Will Democrats be able to support him in the future?

STACK: I think -- I think he will bounce back. I think people driving this have their own political agenda, which is something that we'll be seeing. I think a lot of them have ambitions for higher office and it's not about New Jersey. I think it's about self- serving.

TAPPER: All right. Union City Mayor Stack, thank you so much for your time and your views, we appreciate it.

STACK: Thank you so much, Jake.


TAPPER: In other political news, breaking, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were indicted today on allegations of illegally accepting gifts and loans from a political donor, scandal that hounded McDonnell since his last month in office.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns joins us with the latest.

These charges range from fraud and conspiracy, to obstructing federal investigators.

Joe, what are you hearing?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right, Jake, here it is, it's a long one. It's 43 pages of 14-count indictment alleging what is known as honest services wire fraud involving Governor McDonnell and his wife Maureen. They are also charged with conspiracy to obtain property essentially through abuse of office.

There's a false statement charge against the former governor himself, as well as one against the both of them, and obstruction of justice charge against Maureen McDonnell over a letter given to the a grand jury in which she apparently asserted that she promised to give a gift back to a donor when there was no apparent intent to do so. This is what is known in the business as a talking indictment that really lays out full details of the case that's been expected for some time.

The meat of the case involves loans and other things of value allegedly given to the McDonnells by the former CEO of a dietary supplement company called Star Scientific. The CEO's name is Johnny Williams. The indictment charges that McDonnell used his position as governor in order to enrich themselves. Williams is alleged to have given tens of thousands of dollars in value to get help from the government to advance and promote his products, Jake.

TAPPER: Joe, we're talking about money, we're talking about clothes, we're talking about trips.

JOHNS: Right.

TAPPER: Some of these accusations involved the wedding of the McDonnell's daughter.

JOHNS: Right.

TAPPER: Remind us about that.

JOHNS: Right. His daughter had a wedding and it is alleged that the company paid for the catering and other things of value at that one wedding, all to advance what the government says essentially was a conspiracy so that Star Scientific would actually get its products promoted.

So, that's just one of many things. But you're right, a designer dress bought in New York. There were golf trips involved in there, as well as large loans. One loan mentioned in the indictment, around $50,000.

Of course, there's much more to this and we're going to read it much more closely and get back on CNN when we have more details.

TAPPER: Staggering news from a man that some considered to be a potential vice president, if not presidential candidate some day.

Joe Johns, thank you so much.

Wen we come back, if you hadn't noticed, it's snowing here in Trenton, New Jersey. Governor Christie has now declared a state of emergency. We will have more on the storm ahead.

Plus, more flyers handed out by police searching for two additional black widows who could be planning a terror attack at the Sochi Olympics. Stay tuned.