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THE SITUATION ROOM
"Black Widow" Threat to Olympics; Slaughter and Starvation Cloud Peace Talks; Massive Snowstorm Hammering East Coast; Obama And Putin Have Telephone Conversation Today; New Jersey Assembles Super Committee To Investigate Allegations Against Christie Administration; Obama's Frank Comments on Race; Jailed Missionary Pleads for U.S. Help
Aired January 21, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right, Jake, thank you.
Happening now, breaking news -- a massive and very dangerous winter storm hammering the eastern half of the United States, with brutal cold and heavy snow. Cities are shutting down. Thousands of flights are canceled. We have full team coverage this hour.
A desperate hunt for female suicide bombers known as black widows and a shadowy figure known as Russia's Osama bin Laden, who's vowed to target the Olympic Games.
Is it safe for Americans to go to Sochi?
Plus, Chris Christie is sworn in for a second term as a scandal swirls around him. He's already sinking in the polls.
Can he turn things around?
I'll ask one of his top allies.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
They're called black widows -- female suicide bombers. And they pose a chilling new terror threat, as the world's top winter athletes and thousands of American tourists get ready to head for Russia and the Olympic Games.
An urgent hunt is underway in Russia right now, specifically in Southern Russia, already reeling after a series of terror attacks.
CNN's Phil Black is there with the very latest.
PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're now aware the Russian authorities believe they've detected two separate terror plots involving so-called black widows, or female suicide bombers. One, a group of women thought to be targeting the Olympic Torch relay in the City of Rostov-on-Don. A second plot is thought to involve a woman, the widow of a known militant, who's thought to be already in Sochi planning an attack.
BLACK (voice-over): Russian police are racing against the clock to find this woman, who they say may be working with a known terrorist organization, planning an attack on the Olympics. And she may already be inside Sochi, ready to strike.
JEFF BEATTY, SECURITY CONSULTANT: Obviously, the Russian security forces are concerned that perhaps people have already penetrated their outer perimeter and are in Sochi.
BLACK: Twenty-two-year-old Ruzanna Ibragimova is described as a black widow, a notorious type of suicide terrorist that's emerged in Russia's clashes with Chechen separatists. Police have distributed fliers to hotels in Sochi and are asking staff to be on the lookout for her.
Experts say there could be other so-called black widows planning a strike.
FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: We shouldn't assume that she's the only one they're concerned about. She's likely part of a larger network that they're looking at.
BLACK: Ibragimova is believed to be from Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Caucasus Region. In the U.S., law enforcement agents have been conducting knock and talk interviews with people from that region for weeks, asking community members if there are any issues where they should be focusing.
This morning, the Russian Anti-Terrorist Committee posted a statement, saying they killed seven rebels in Makhachkala, Dagestan early last week. One of those killed is a black widow by the name of Zaira Allieva.
CNN has confirmed she was one of three women who Russian authorities believe were planning a suicide bomb attack in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, targeting the Olympic Torch relay on Tuesday or Wednesday.
This notice was sent to local hotels, again asking workers to help find the women.
All this after a new terror threat this past weekend from two young men in this video, claiming responsibility for twin suicide bombings in Volgograd last month. And they say, as for the Olympics, we've prepared a present for you.
Say Sochi is uniquely at risk because Islamic militant hotbeds are within the country, leaving the Olympics closer than ever to danger.
TOM FUENTES, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: This group does not have to fly in from the Middle East or North Africa or Asia or some other remote location. They are already in the neighborhood.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BLACK: Russian authorities are sticking to their line that all precautions are being taken and these Olympic Games will be safe.
Publicly, they are not commenting about this black widow plots, but in both cases, they've been concerned enough to approach people on the ground, hotel workers, to ask them to help find these women.
Back to you -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very chilling stuff.
Phil Black in Volgograd, Russia for us.
Our chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, today sat down for an exclusive interview with the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and questioned him about the terror concerns.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Because this is a moment of great pride for Russia, great anticipation for the world athletes. And yet, you have a major security threat, a major security alert that your government and security forces have stated.
Can you tell me what you know about this threat?
How dangerous is it?
DMITRY MEDVEDEV, RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): On public events, there are always some threats, not only in this country, but also in others. In this country, they have some specific nature and consequences. Definitely, we are aware of that. And we will take that into account during the Olympics.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
BLITZER: While the hunt is on for the so-called black widow bombers, there are also deep concerns about plots that may already be set in motion by a man known as Russia's bin Laden, who's vowed to target the Olympic Games.
CNN's Brian Todd is here.
He's been looking into this part of the story -- Brian, what are you seeing?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this man is very dangerous and very elusive. A U.S. intelligence official tells me the Russians have claimed to have killed him at least six times over the years and it hasn't happened. Doka Umarov is his name. He's now got Russian and U.S. officials scrambling to protect the Olympics and track every threat.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice-over): Some call him Russia's bin Laden. A U.S. intelligence official calls him "the Amir." He's Doka Umarov, a dangerous, charismatic Chechen Islamist militant leader. A Russian- backed Chechen official says Umarov was killed recently in a counter- terror operation.
But U.S. officials tell us they can't confirm that. Experts say even if Umarov is dead...
CHRISTOPHER SWIFT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: With the world coming to Sochi, Doka Umarov is coming to the Olympics.
TODD: Last July, Umarov threatened to destroy the Sochi games, calling them, quote, "Satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors."
Experts warn terror plots against the Winter Olympics may already have been launched from his orders.
That's where he draws comparisons to bin Laden.
ANDREW KUCHINS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: He is not the technical planner for some of the acts that take place. I think that Umarov is more, again, of the inspirational leader. He's the spokesperson. He issues the public statements that everybody tracks, as we did with Osama bin Laden for years.
TODD: Umarov, said to be in his late 40s, leads as loose fit confederation of Muslim militant groups that have been battling Russian forces since 1994.
SWIFT: For the last 20 years, Umarov has done two things every day when he woke up in the morning. The first was to hide from the Russian security services. And the second was to fight the Russian security services.
TODD: Doka Umarov claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings on the Moscow subway in 2010 that killed more than three dozen people and a 2011 suicide bombing in this Moscow airport that killed dozens more.
DOKA UMAROV, CHECHEN TERRORIST LEADER: (through translator): This special operation was carried out at my order. And God willing, there will be more of them in the future.
TODD: Analysts say Umarov is elusive, has narrowly escaped death several times and there are reports he's had plastic surgery to repair his face. Dead or alive, his threat is very real.
SWIFT: So he can be replaced in about 10 seconds. And the people who are in line behind him are just as ruthless, just as resilient and just as radical.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
TODD: Christopher Swift says whoever replaces Umarov would probably be from Dagestan, because that's where the most dangerous militants in the Caucasus are right now. Experts say Umarov could be hiding out in Dagestan, if he's alive. That's also the region where Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited before returning to Boston and allegedly setting off the Boston Marathon bombs -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And we're learning that U.S. officials are stepping up their involvement to try to make sure these Olympic Games in Sochi are safe.
TODD: We have gotten that information. A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, tells our Barbara Starr that Dempsey and his Russian counterpart have discussed the possibility of the U.S. sharing some high tech equipment to counter IEDs during the Olympics. That's being discussed.
The U.S. intelligence official told me the intelligence community is going to have people in that region. We also have to note, the U.S. has placed a $5 million bounty for information leading to the location of this man we just spoke about, Doku Umarov, this Chechen militant.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure they'd like to get him, if they can.
BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much.
There's also word from the Russian government that President Obama called President Putin today. Their conversation is said to have focused mainly on the Syrian peace talks set to begin tomorrow in Geneva. Only a few hours away from those talks, by the way, after nearly three years of brutal slaughter. Time, though, is running out for besieged starving civilians in Syria.
CNN's Fred Pleitgen got an extraordinary firsthand look from the front lines.
Fred is one of the only Western reporters in Damascus right now -- Fred, what did you see, what did you hear?
FREDERICK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, now, the international community has been heavily criticizing the Syrian regime for allegedly using starvation as a weapon in the ongoing civil war.
One of the places that's under siege is a place called Yarmouk, which used to be a Palestinian refugee camp here within Syria. It's now sort of turned into a district of Damascus. It's under rebel control. But it is under siege.
And now, as sort of a goodwill gesture, before the Geneva conference, the regime has let a few people out and has let some aid supplies in.
We were there when that happened and here's how it looked.
PLEITGEN (voice-over): After months of hunger, cold and violence, for some of the weakest, the nightmare is over. The youngest, Hadi Irazbakir (ph), is only 15 days old.
"There's not enough food inside. I simply didn't have enough food for him," Hadi's mother says.
This is the Yarmouk area, just a few miles from Central Damascus. Inhabited mostly by Palestinians, it fell into rebel hands more than a year ago.
Yarmouk has been under siege by pro-Assad forces since September. Activists inside say dozens have died of starvation and lack of medical care.
This 75-year-old says the lack of food is devastating.
"Most of the people want to get out. They're hungry. There's no food and hunger is the killer," he says, as gunshots ring over the area.
Yarmouk has seen fierce battles between pro and anti-regime forces. International aid groups have accused the government of denying food to civilians trapped inside. The regime says armed rebels did not allow food and medication to enter.
(on camera): We are now inside Yarmouk Camp. This is the final area of government control. And this is also as far as the military is going to let us go. They say otherwise, it's too dangerous, because there are snipers in the area behind us.
But that area is the place where thousands of people are still trapped.
(voice-over): Now, in what the government says is a goodwill gesture ahead of the Geneva peace conference, some aid is being allowed in and some people allowed to leave.
But a resident we spoke to inside says little has changed and he has no faith that the peace conference in Geneva will lead to end of hostilities here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that nothing will change after Geneva. But I hope something different will happen. I hope that, but I'm sure that nothing will change.
PLEITGEN: The opposition says the Assad regime is using acts like this as a publicity stunt.
But for those able to leave Yarmouk after months of siege, politics are an afterthought and most are happy to simply be alive.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, it is an appalling situation for many people who are still trapped inside. Now, the information that we're getting from activists inside Yarmouk Camp and other area, as well, is that people are trying to eat leaves, people are trying to pick grass -- eat grass. There's apparently some people who have been shot trying to pick the leaves off trees that were in the scope of snipers.
So it really is a dire situation. The people that I speak to here on the ground in Damascus, Wolf, more and more people than ever before -- and you know I've been here a couple of times -- are saying we simply want the violence here to end. And they certainly hope that something could come out of the Geneva conference. Certainly most diplomats don't seem to be very optimistic -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, I don't know anybody who's optimistic about this Geneva conference that's about to begin.
Let's hope for the best, though.
Fred, thanks very much.
Fred Pleitgen, one of the few Western reporters in Damascus right now.
Just ahead, our breaking news -- a monster winter storm bringing heavy snow and dangerously frigid temperatures to the eastern part of the United States. We'll have live team coverage from some of the hardest hit areas.
And Chris Christie starts his second term with a state of emergency. It's for snow, not scandal.
But can he ride out the political storm swirling about him?
BLITZER: A major story breaking this hour. A massive snowstorm hammering much of the northeast, the worst of it bearing down right now in the immediate hours ahead. Here in Washington, D.C., where the federal government is shut down, as much as ten inches of snow is expected with wind chills as low as 15 degrees below zero.
Off the coast in Philadelphia and New York, up to a foot of snow. And in parts of Massachusetts, they're bracing for more than a foot of snow and whiteout blizzard conditions with the warnings not to venture outdoors.
CNN has team coverage of this monster storm up and down the east coast, but let's begin with our Jennifer Gray. She's over at the CNN Severe Weather Center. Jennifer, give us the latest forecast.
JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, Wolf, it could not be more messy for the evening commute across the northeast when you have D.C., New York, and Boston all covered in snow right now. And the snow is continuing to come down. This is that light, fluffy snow and so with very strong winds over the next couple of hours and even during the overnight. You can expect visibility to be down less than a quarter of a mile in a lot of places. So, dangerous outside.
D.C. is still getting the rain -- the snow, rather as we look at the radar. Philly, New York as well, even Boston getting in on the snow, as we speak. Also, a blizzard warning for the cape and that begins at seven o'clock this evening. Let's take this storm hour by hour. You can see, this is the evening commute, still snow in D.C., New York, and Boston as of 11 o'clock evening. It does push out of D.C., New York, and Philly as we get into early tomorrow morning.
However, areas like Boston and the surrounding areas, and that includes the cape, could still some see lingering snow showers as we go throughout the early hours of tomorrow morning before this thing starts to push off shore. Now, snow totals are impressive. We could see anywhere from eight to ten inches of snow in New York, Long Island, isolated amounts, up to a foot in some areas and Rhode Island and Massachusetts, could see anywhere to a foot of snow or more across those areas.
Now, we're going to see very, very cold temperatures as well. Overnight tonight, we could see wind chills 12 degrees below zero in New York City, Boston. During the overnight hours, you could feel like 11 degrees below zero and then those temperatures will be moderating as we go throughout tomorrow, but look at the three-day forecast for some of the major cities.
Atlanta, your high temperature on Tuesday. We were at 48. We will be at 37 high temperature on Wednesday, Wolf. So, it is going to be cold, cold across the east coast the next couple of days.
BLITZER: Very cold, indeed. Jennifer, thanks for that forecast. CNN meteorologist and severe weather expert, Chad Myers, is up on a pier in Plymouth, Massachusetts right now. Chad, Plymouth considered ground zero for this storm. What are the conditions like where you are?
CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Not that far from Plymouth Rock, Wolf. It's cold. We're dress sport (ph). It doesn't feel too bad. On a normal summer day, people would walk up to this booth and ask for a sunset cruise. Not today, because it looks like that. They said blizzard warning seven o'clock, I'm telling you, the blizzard is pretty much already here.
I think seven o'clock is going to be really good. Folks over here, at the Shanty Rose, they're invited us for coffee, but they're just having a little party out there. But if you look downtown, if you look down this way, you just don't see anybody else out there. The police have been by. The fire trucks have been by.
We've got a couple of scoopers going by, but otherwise, I think people are staying home. I think they realize that this, although, may not be the biggest storm of the year, certainly is a big enough storm when visibility can be down to a quarter or an eighth of a mile. This snow is really going to come down. It's going to come down all night long, and we will be right here on the same pier for the next six hours - Wolf.
BLITZER: Right. We're going to check back with you frequently, Chad. Thank you. Poppy Harlow is over on Eastern Long Island right now. Poppy, you could be experiencing some near blizzard conditions. Are you ready?
POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm ready, Wolf. I mean, you know where from. I'm from Minnesota. You're from Buffalo. We can deal with this and so can the folks here on the north shore of Long Island. I want to take you. This is Main Street. You see how slow the traffic is. This would usually be busy every night with people going into the stores and their way home from work. Not all.
Let me just give you a sense of how tough it was for us to get out here today. Left -- in New York, 12:30 p.m. and didn't get here until 4:30 p.m. A drive that should take an hour or less took four hours in the middle of the day, not even in rush hour. We've got about four inches of snow right now. We're going to get eight to 12. The big story here is going to be the freezing temperatures that Chad and Jennifer were telling you about.
It's going to be about eight here overnight. It's going to feel like negative 10. That's going to persist through the day tomorrow. What does that means? That means all of these roads that aren't necessarily iced over now will be iced over by the morning. That's the big concern. The power company here telling us, we're not worried about the snow. We're worried about the ice and the winds bringing down the power lines.
He will try to get in and out of work, but Wolf, you know what is open here? The pizza shop and the liquor store and that's about it. We went inside, and the liquor store owner said, hey, people need to drink in a blizzard. So, I'm staying open for my customers. He said the best seller is single malt scotch and a cab to ride it out -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Got to warm me up a little bit. All right. Thanks, Poppy.
BLITZER: Poppy Harlow on Long Island. Zain Asher is in New York City for us. What are the conditions like there, Zain?
ZAIN ASHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. Well, the snow is still pretty light right now, but the winds are picking up. So, what that means is that -- it's a lot colder than it actually look. I'm cold and I've been in a long time. And I know, Wolf, you're from Buffalo. So, you're used to this. I certainly am not because I'm from London. This is all very new to me. But I will say, though, that the big question right now is really how is this weather going to impact the evening commute?
I'm sure a lot of people are watching this at work, at their desks wondering, OK, Wolf, you know, what is the best way to get home tonight. If you guessed mass transit, give yourself a gold star that it's absolutely right. You don't want to be driving in these conditions. Let me show you why. So, take a look behind me. You can see Columbus Circle, which by the way, which is usually very busy this time of night, absolutely empty.
Obviously, drivers are taking the warnings very seriously. There's low visibility. And by the way, even if you did leave work 45 minutes early or so, chances are you would be sitting in traffic. So, your best friends right now are the MSA and the Long Island Railroad -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good advice, Zain. Thanks so much. Zain Asher in New York City.
Athena Jones is here in the Nation's Capital. She's out on the national mall. So, what's it like outside, Athena?
ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, it's very, very cold here. We've been watching this snowfall heavily and steadily since 10:00 a.m. and it's going to be falling for several more hours. It's not supposed to stop until possibly after nine o'clock when we could see accumulations of eight or ten inches. I just want to show you about the consistency of this snow. You can see that it's really light.
It's not too heavy. So, it blows and blowing snow is one of the issues that we've heard, one of the concerns, I should say, from the National Weather Service as part of their winter storm warning. They talk about decreased visibility. Half a mile. As low as half a mile. They're urging people to be careful and not to be out on the roads, unless, they have to be.
And if they are out on the roads, in their cars, to make sure they're packing a blanket, food, water, a flashlight in case they come into any trouble. So, even though today we saw a lot of people trying to build snow men and making snow angels and having snowball fights, there's a real concern because these are potentially dangerous conditions, not just the roads, of course, but also the cold weather.
The National Weather Service says we could see wind chill factors of five to 15 degrees below zero overnight. So, we're still in the midst of this and it won't be for several more hours until it ends -- Wolf?
BLITZER: There's not much traffic, not just because of the bad weather. They've shut the government early this morning. They've shut down virtually all of the local schools in D.C., Maryland, Northern Virginia. So, you don't see any cars on the road, right?
JONES: That's right. There's been very little traffic for much of the day. We know that the D.C. government had 200 plows available as of 8:00 a.m. this morning. We've seen numerous trucks going back and forth, spreading salt on the road to try to keep them from icing over and keep the snow from accumulating.
But you're right, because the federal government was shut down, because many of the school systems, not just in D.C., but in the wider area were shut down, we're seeing a lot less traffic than we usually see, even though places like the Supreme Court were opened and the Smithsonian Museums are open, it's not your normal day and we're not going to see any kind of rush hour like we usually see, Wolf.
BLITZER: Athena, thanks so much. The storm also is wreaking havoc on travel across the area. Close to 3,000 flights now canceled in and out of United States. CNNs Rene Marsh, she's over at Washington's Reagan National Airport with the latest information. What can you tell us, Rene?
RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I could tell you at this point, roughly 2,500 delays. We should that is not as many as we saw during that so-called polar vortex. Still, though, if you're one of those people trying to get on that flight, it makes a big difference to you. We're inching towards 3,000 cancellations just for some perspective here on a regular day we usually see about 200 cancellations. So, we're well above that.
Take a look at this video we just shot a short time ago. We went out on the air field right here at Reagan National Airport, and this is what airports along the northeast corridor, they are dealing with. It looks a lot like it looks right here at Reagan. We're seeing some deicing. The visibility is dropping. I want to talk to you a little bit about those airports which are just simply getting slammed by these cancellations.
The top airports are getting slammed, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, and right here in the Washington, D.C., Reagan National Airport. Wolf, at a time like this, when this weather is coming at these airports, it's a team effort working with the airlines. All hands on deck. We were inside the operation center here at Reagan National today. You're looking at that video. They are keeping tabs on everything. The weather conditions, the temperature of the runway, that sort of thing, all to make sure that these people get to where they want to go in a timely fashion -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Rene, thanks very much. Rene is over at Reagan National Airport. She reported on the situation in the skies, not so good, but what about the situation on the ground? CNN's Jason Carroll is actually driving through the snow in New York right now. How bad are those roads? What are you seeing, Jason?
JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, as you may have heard, New York City and the surrounding area expected anywhere between six and 10 inches before all of this is over and I have to tell you from being out on the roads here for the past half hour or so, it already feels like much of that snow has already fallen. It's been very slow going.
Right now, we're on 14th street here in Manhattan headed towards the west side highway. We've been going at a snail's pace at about 10 miles per hour. Thankfully, Wolf, just from being out in the roads already, it's very easy to tell that this is what rush hour looks like in New York City. Normally, you can see right out here on the road, this road here, this road here would be packed with cars, but that's not what we're seeing.
A lot of drivers, obviously, took Mayor de Blasio'r warning which he gave earlier today and said if you did not have to be out on the roads, unless you're an emergency vehicle or you're having to work in a news organization like we are, do not be out on the roads. And that's what we're seeing out here right now. Even so, still, very slow going. Visibility at about a quarter of a mile.
Snow is very thick here along 14th street here and Manhattan as we head towards the west side highway. The good news for New Yorkers is some 1,700 plows and spreaders will be out on the roads here tonight and through the early morning. Also, 2,000 sanitation workers are going to be working extra duty here in the city as well. Slow going, but the message is, stay off the roads if you don't have to be out here -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good message, indeed. Jason Carroll, thanks very much. We'll stay on top of the breaking news. We'll have much more later.
But just ahead, Chris Christie starts his second term with a state of an emergency, because of the snow. Not scandal. But can he ride out the political storm swirling about him?
Also, is an American being held in North Korea one step closer to freedom? His sister is standing by to join us live right here in the SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: White House has just released a statement on President Obama's phone call today to the Russian president Putin, Vladimir Putin. Among other things, they discussed Syria, the peace talks set to begin in Geneva tomorrow. They talked about a U.S.-Russia and cooperation on Iran trying to get rid of its nuclear program. But interestingly, the White House statement says the two presidents also discussed U.S./Russian interests, including what they described as a safe and secure Sochi Olympics for which the United States has offered its full assistance.
So, there you have it. They had a lengthy phone conversation today. President Obama and president Putin talked about a wide range of issues including trying to make sure those winter Olympic Games in Sochi are safe.
Other news, the New Jersey governor Chris Christie today declared a state of emergency for the brutal winter storm sweeping across his state, not because of the political scandal which threatens his political future at his second term inauguration. Governor Christie was all about business as usual with a little bit of tongue in cheek.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: This growth will not happen by following the path that some of our neighbors seem prepared to pursue. For those who prefer economic growth and opportunity to government redistribution of higher taxes, I have this to say to you today. Come to New Jersey. You will be welcome here.
It's only fitting that in this administration with more hurricanes, snowstorms, flooding, and disaster of the natural sort that of any administration that I can remember in my lifetime that we begin the second term in the same way.
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: A little laugh. Presumably referring to the snow emergency in New Jersey. Let's discuss what is going on with the Christie ally. Republican Jon Bramnick is the minority leader of the New Jersey state assembly. Mr. Leader, thanks very much for coming in.
What do you think the governor needs to do right now in the coming days and weeks, I don't know about months, or at least in the next few days and weeks to get over this political crisis?
ASSEMBLYMAN JON BRAMNICK (R), NEW JERSEY: He should do what he did when he first came to Trenton and that would be a strong leader, bipartisan legislation and made substantial changes in policy in Trenton. You know, we had high taxes. He started to address that issue. He changed the way arbitration is done in that state. He took on issues that I never thought anyone could do in this state. Let him continue to do the same thing he's been doing.
BLITZER: Do you know why those traffic lanes were closed leading up to the George Washington bridge?
BRAMNICK: I don't have any idea. But I can tell you that those e- mails and text messages were horrific and we want to get to the bottom of that. There are some investigations going on. Republicans and Democrats want answers to that. Nobody liked what happened. The governor said it at a press conference and we'll get to the bottom of that, no question about it. But we should stop working on policies that affect the people in the state of New Jersey.
BLITZER: As you know, the assembly, and you are the leader, the Republican leader in the assembly and in the New Jersey Senate. They have now combined their investigation into one sort of super committee. Do you trust them?
BRAMNICK: Well, that's the first step. You didn't need two investigations there and other investigations at the federal and U.S. Attorneys' office. But we need bipartisan investigations. The investigation that was created by John Wisniewski, all of the power was in his hands. He determine who would be subpoenaed, what documents he would control all the documents. We are asking simply to let Republicans and Democrats do it, a bipartisan investigation so we know it's not just a former democratic chairman against the Republicans. So, we all want to get to the bottom of it but let's do it together.
BLITZER: What about Paul Fishman? He is the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey. He was point named by President Obama, do you trust him? Because he's leading his own separate federal investigation.
BRAMNICK: Absolutely. I've actually called for chairman Wisniewski to send as many of these documents and the investigation directly to him. I think that you need a prosecutor, a federal prosecutor and there's one appointed by Barack Obama. Actually, that's probably the best way to handle all investigations.
BLITZER: Have you spoken with these series of scandals with the governor in most recent days?
BRAMNICK: I have not. I have not discussed the substance of it. I wish him well. I'm a legislator. He's an executive. We work together on legislation but we have not discussed the substance of the issues outstanding.
BLITZER: There's no smoking gun. There's no direct evidence linking the governor personally to these scandals. But a lot of the critics, as you well know, mostly Democrats, they say these aides wouldn't be doing these things unless they assumed or thought or got some sort green light from the governor to which you say --
BRAMNICK: Well, whether it's CNN or my law office, people do stupid stuff. And in every administration there's always some dumb thing that happens. But he took responsibility. This, in my judgment, is one of the strongest leaders I've seen in this nation. He would never stand for that kind of activity on his watch. The fact that it happened, he's apologized, he'll get to the bottom of it, we'll get to the bottom of it but Chris Christie is a guy that is a real straight talker and that's the kind of leader we need.
BLITZER: Jon Bramnick is the New Jersey assembly minority leader, the Republican leader in the assembly. Assemblyman, thanks so much for joining us.
BRAMNICK: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And good luck with that New Jersey weather. It's a little brutal out there right now. I appreciate you suffering through it.
BRAMNICK: Trying to get home.
BLITZER: We would have had you doing a weather report for us. Go home. You've had enough outdoor activities today. Thank you.
Just ahead, could a jailed U.S. missionary somehow be closer to freedom because of Dennis Rodman's controversial trip to North Korea? I'll ask the sister of Kenneth Bae. There she is. She's standing by live.
Also, pretty frank talk with President Obama about race and its impact on his own popularity.
BLITZER: As he begins his second term, the New Jersey governor Chris Christie facing another big storm as a political storm surrounds him.
Let's discuss what is going on with our chief correspondent Gloria Borger, our chief national correspondent John King, and our CNN political commentator Charles Blow.
Let me throw the numbers out to you, Charles. First, in this new Quinnipiac University poll, a hypothetical matchup between Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie a month ago it was neck-and-neck, 42 percent for Hillary Clinton and 41 -- 42 percent for Christie and 41 percent for Hillary Clinton. Look at it now, 46 for Clinton, 38 for Christie. How much political trouble is the governor in right now?
CHARLES BLOW, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he is in a lot if he continues to trim in that direction. But there is no, you know, you can't say at this point whether or not that will happen. This is not, at this point, a fatal issue for him. What will be fatal if we find out relatively quickly that he knew more than he is letting on or that he had in that long, rambling press conference that he had.
But here's the flip side of that, which is that other things happen in the news and if something -- another big political thing pops up before we find out whether or not Chris Christie was completely a mess in this particular scandal. He probably will survive it on that front.
The second thing is, if he -- if it turns out that he's actually not -- he is telling the truth, he was not aware of what was happening, even though it happened under his watch and under his nose, he was not aware that he basically told the truth. He basically got rid of the people who were responsible, he has gotten more national exposure than he could possibly buy. And that means that he has actually raised his profile within the Republican Party.
BLITZER: That's a good point.
BLOW: One thing that really works with the Republican candidates is that the Republican rank and file do not like the elite media. They see an inherent bias and if you're being attacked by the media, that's how they read this, I think many of them read this that way. Then that makes you one of them and that makes him more one of them than he was a month ago.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, here's the interesting thing. His poll numbers have not really declined among Republicans because Republicans are actually coalescing among him, even conservatives who don't like him because of the fight with the media, as Charles is talking about.
The place that he's really lost some altitude is with independent voters. The independent voters that he won when he was running for re-election, that he talked about in his speech today, that he brought Democrats, Republicans, men, women, minorities, together. That's where he's losing support and that's been his calling card in the Republican Party saying, I can get elected president.
KING: It's going to take three months, six months or more until these investigations are wrapped up. That's when we're going to know here. And Chris Christie has to do the best job he can trying to govern. In the meantime at a time when Democrats are emboldened to oppose him.
One quick other thing, the Democrats potentially did a smart thing by combining these investigations because some Democrats are worried we're going to overreach here. We're going to have too many people attacking Chris Christie, we're going to make this look political, and it's going to play to his advantage.
So one legislative investigation, one outside criminal investigation. Cleaner and potentially less political.
(CROSSTALK) BLOW: But as John points out, three to six months. On what story does the public actually have three to six-month attention span? That is the real danger here. That if you don't figure out very quickly and it's no -- it's not clear that you'll be able to figure out very quickly that he knew something or did something wrong, if you have to wait three to six months, with all of the other things that are bubbling up that could come into play, that could take over the spotlight, he actually survives just by waiting it out and not having another shoe to drop while people pay attention.
BLITZER: And as you point out he can get -- he is getting some allies now because of the criticism, because of the attacks against him.
Charles and guys, listen to this. Yesterday we reported the president's comments in that lengthy interview with "The New Yorker" magazine about race. He said in that interview, "There's no doubt that there is some folks who just really dislike me because they don't like the idea of a black president. The flip side of it is, there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black president."
Our producer, Rachel Shackleford, remembered -- and Charles, let me let you weigh in on this first. This isn't the first time the president said these kinds of words. Going back to 2008 and 2009. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because I don't want to sound naive. Will there be some folks who probably don't vote for me because I'm black? Of course. Are there some people who don't like me because of my race? I'm sure there are. Are there some people who vote for me only because of my race, there are probably some of those, too.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So what do you think? This seems to be a theme. I didn't remember the earlier comments, Charles, but he's been saying these kinds of things now at least going back to 2008.
BLOW: Well, I think it's just acknowledging what a lot of people already feel. But I think that what a lot of that discussion boils this kind of racial debate down to a binary, whether you like someone or not simply on kind of one dimension and I think it's more complicated than that.
Yes, are there people who -- for whom race is the primary factor, the only factor? Yes. But I would guess that that is a small group of people.
For most people, why you are attracted to someone or repulsed by someone is multi-factorial. Race may be part of that equation. Another part may be policy, another part maybe whatever the case. And what weighting either of those things get in a person is a very difficult thing for anyone of us to (INAUDIBLE) in another person.
And so I think we have to, like, think about this as both things that people are able to articulate that race is my primary motive or -- they have been able to acknowledge or even capable of acknowledging or even can acknowledge. And whether or not that is a large group of people or a very small group of people is a very difficult thing for any of us to try to figure out and I think that -- you know, the president is acknowledging that, yes, there is probably a sliver and I think that there is a sliver on both sides of that coin.
And how much of it exists within each of us is just too difficult for us to even try to point fingers and say that race is the factor here or there or wherever.
BLITZER: Charles Blow, John King, Gloria Borger, we're going to leave it right there. There's a lot to dissect in that lengthy article in the "New Yorker" magazine.
Just ahead, could Dennis Rodman's strange trip to North Korea actually somehow bring a jailed American missionary a step closer to freedom? I'm going to talk to the sister of Kenneth Bae. She's standing by live. We'll talk about his sentence of 15 years of hard labor in North Korea and his new plea for help. Stand by.
BLITZER: He's 15 months into a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea. Now the American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae has made a videotaped statement with a chilling confession.
Bae says he committed a serious crime, he insists he hasn't been mistreated, and he's calling on the U.S. government and the news media, and his own family, in fact, to stop, quote, "worsening" his situation by, quote, "vial rumors against North Korea." But he also makes a plea for help.
So is the new video a source of concern or hope for his family?
Let's discuss all of this with the sister of Kenneth Bae, Terri Chung.
Terri, thanks so much for joining us. Our hearts go out to you. We hope your brother is home soon. When you saw the video what did you think?
TERRI CHUNG, SISTER OF KENNETH BAE: It was lots of mixed emotions. You know, I -- it was good to see my brother's face. I haven't seen him for 15 months. But -- and he seemed to be in decent health. So that was encouraging. But, you know, it's always difficult to see him in the prison uniform. It's a visceral reminder that he is a prisoner number 103. And that, you know, he's not a number to us. So I think that is really difficult for us to watch.
BLITZER: So -- if -- when you were watching him and you thought he was OK -- because your mom visited him in North Korea in October, she came back with a relatively gloomy assessment of his health, right? CHUNG: Kenneth has been in the hospital for the past five months. And I understand that he has been receiving medical treatment. So, you know, I have not gotten any official medical updates but I think from my mom's perspective he looked a little better than he did back then in October.
BLITZER: Do you believe as some analysts believe that the actual release of this video, letting him speak to reporters, showing him there, may be a precursor to his eventual release sooner rather than later?
CHUNG: It is hard to know that. That's certainly what we hope and pray for every day. And, you know, we won't rest easy until he is on U.S. soil.
BLITZER: When the State Department, the Obama administration saw the video, one of the immediate steps, they said, was the special U.S. envoy who's been assigned to North Korea is ready to go there and bring your brother home.
Do you believe the United States government, the president, the secretary of state and others are doing everything possible to bring him home?
CHUNG: We appreciate the work they have been doing both behind the scenes and otherwise. But we ask for their continued advocacy and not resting easy until he does come home.
BLITZER: My own analysis for, and -- for what it is worth, no inside information, just someone who's been to North Korea, I was there three years ago, the Dennis Rodman embarrassment to the North Korea, he's now in rehab as you know, and he said some awful things when he came back. That embarrassment may inadvertently at least help your brother a little bit. Maybe the North Koreans want to improve their own image by now going ahead and doing what they should have done a while ago. Make your brother come home. What do you make of that analysis?
CHUNG: It is hard to know. Dennis certainly overstepped his bounds with his remarks. But it had thrust the -- situation into more of a spotlight which we sorely need to bring Kenneth home.
BLITZER: Well, good luck, Terri. We are praying for you and your family and your brother. We hope he is released soon. We appreciate you joining us.
CHUNG: Thank you for having me.
BLITZER: And just ahead in our next hour, a candid confession from the former first lady, Barbara Bush. Why she said she, quote, "loves" the former president Bill Clinton.
And the billionaire Warren Buffett betting $1 billion on this season's NCAA tournament. We're going to explain that and a lot more when we come back.