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Will Iran Live Up to Nuclear Agreement?; "We Are Under Constant Cyber Attack; GOP Grapples with Image Problems; Interview with Matt Bevin

Aired January 23, 2014 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Jake, thank you.

Happening now, Iranian leaders raise fresh doubts about whether they will honor the nuclear agreement with the West.

Are their tough comments to CNN just spin or are they cause for grave concern?

As Republicans look for ways to repair their image, they name a woman to respond to the president's State of the Union Address, while Mike Huckabee blasted Democrats, saying the Democrats think women, quote, "can't control their libidos."

And is today the unofficial start of the Hillary Clinton campaign? she may not have declared for 2016, but a liberal political machine is already starting up the bandwagon.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


Just days after the nuclear deal with Iran went into effect, tough talk from Iranian leaders raising fresh doubts about whether Tehran will live up to its side of the bargain.

But what exactly is in that agreement?

And how will Americans know if it's being breached?

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta -- Jim.


Wolf, it's clear sticking points remain between the U.S. and Iran over this deal. Administration officials are brushing off comments made by Iranian leaders to CNN that they would not dismantle parts -- key parts of their nuclear program that could be weaponized in the future.

But the White House says eventually, that's exactly what Iran will have to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA (voice-over): Aides to President Obama insist they saw this one coming. JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We said before that we expected the Iranian government to spin the commitments they made under the Joint Plan of Action for their domestic political purposes.

ACOSTA: At issue are comments made this week by top Iranian leaders, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who told CNN in an exclusive interview, the White House is overselling just how far his country has agreed to go in the interim deal to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, FOREIGN MINISTER, IRAN: The White House tries to portray it as basically a dismantling of Iran's nuclear program. That is the word that they used time and again.

But we're not dismantling any centrifuges. We are not dismantling any equipment.

ACOSTA: Zarif did overstate the number of times the administration used the word "dismantle." But earlier this month, President Obama said in a statement, "Iran will, for the first time, start eliminating its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium and dismantling some of the infrastructure that makes such enrichment possible."

But in a separate interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Iran's president said no way.


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": So there will be no destruction of centrifuges -- of existing centrifuges?

PRES. HASSAN ROUHANI, THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN (through translator): No. No. Not at all.


ACOSTA: Asked about those comments, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Iranians are playing semantics.

CARNEY: How Iranian officials characterize this for a domestic audience matters far less to us than what they're actually doing.

ACOSTA: The White House says the destruction of centrifuges has always been a goal of a future, longer lasting agreement, not the interim deal that's just been implemented.

It's a case the president made last December.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They don't need some of the advanced centrifuges that they currently possess in order to have a limited, peaceful nuclear program.


ACOSTA: Now, as for Iran's call for the U.S. to release the text of the interim nuclear deal, the White House resisted that advice, saying it's already made that available to members of Congress.

And as for those accusations of engaging in political spin on the Iranian part, two key Congressional leaders from both parties told me, Wolf, that they believe the White House is also putting its best face on the agreement because of domestic pressures here in Washington -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Why don't they simply release the text so the American public can see what's in the actual agreement?

If the Iranians know what's in the agreement, Zarif and Rouhani, they obviously have read the text.

Why can't the American public know what's in the text?

ACOSTA: That's right, as have members of Congress. But White House press secretary, Jay Carney, has told reporters it is the preference of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that will be watching Iran's dealings with this agreement and their compliance with this agreement, that there are certain technical aspects of the final or the interim deal that they would like to keep confidential.

The White House is saying that's why they're keeping that text not public at this point. They think that it's best to be kept confidential for the moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, why not just keep those technical points confidential but release everything else?

ACOSTA: Now, they have -- they have, Wolf, released summaries of the deal. And that has been put out to reporters. We've talked about that over the last several weeks. But the actual text of the deal, the White House, at this point, is saying it is their preference, because of what they say the IAEA would like to see happen, that those -- that that text remain confidential at the moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

And Fareed Zakaria is joining us now from Davos, Switzerland, where he just had an exclusive interview with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani -- let me play a clip, Fareed, because it gets to the most sensitive part of what the Iranians have agreed to do as far as their nuclear program is concerned and what they have not agreed to.

Watch this.


ROUHANI: (through translator) we will not accept any limitations.

And, in accordance with the parliament law, in the future, we're going to need 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-produced electricity and we're determined to obtain the nuclear fuel for the nuclear installations at the hands of our Iranian scientists. And we are going to follow on this path.

ZAKARIA: So there will be no destruction of centrifuges -- of existing centrifuges?

ROUHANI: Not under any circumstances.


BLITZER: It seems to me, even going further, Fareed, than what his foreign minister, Zarif, told our Jim Sciutto this week.

What's going on here, because there could be, potentially, some sort of fundamental disagreement between Iran and the US.

ZAKARIA: That's exactly what I worry about, Wolf. I think you're right. It's the first time an Iranian official -- and this is the president -- has laid out his vision, if you will, of the final agreement. And what he said to me, what Rouhani said was, look, we intend to have a robust civilian nuclear program. You can have as many inspections as you want, but we are not going to roll back that program. In fact, we're going to expand that program.

Now, that's a very different vision from what the United States has laid out, where they expected significant rollback of the program. They talked about shuttering some of those centrifuges. They talked about dismantling one or two of the heavy water reactors, the ones at Fordow in Iraq.

He made clear, categorically, specifically and unequivocally, none of that is going to happen.

So I think we have a train wreck on its way here.

BLITZER: Yes, it sounds like.

And I'm going to play another clip about when you asked him about the U.S.-Iranian relations, confidence building.

Listen to this.


ZAKARIA: Do you think, in your understanding of the negotiations, that the two sides are -- that there is enough goodwill, that there is enough trust that there can be a bridge between what seem to be very different positions?

ROUHANI: Of course, one cannot say there is full confidence and trust.


BLITZER: So, Fareed, where is this U.S.-Iranian relation heading? ZAKARIA: You know, I am struck by the fact that there is a commitment to negotiation. He reiterated very strongly, we do not intend to have nuclear weapons, we have made it clear, it is un-Islamic, it is forbidden, you can have inspections as many as you want. So there were some positive elements.

But the bridge between the two positions, as I say, is so great, that you would need a lot of trust -- and we have very little. Remember, we've not talked to this country in 34 years. We're just beginning this process. We're not doing it one-on-one.

And as a result, you know, these negotiations -- and I've talked to people who have been in them -- they're -- they don't -- you don't build a lot of trust when you have so many people in the room. You've got six countries on one side, Iran on the other. It's difficult to imagine this one ending very happily.

BLITZER: Yes, it sounds pretty depressing.

On Syria -- and the Iranians have a lot of influence on what's going on in Syria, they have a close relationship with the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad -- he did say something intriguing to you about elections in Syria and, potentially, some sort of end to the civil war.

What did he say?

ZAKARIA: Well, he was very clear that he supported the Assad regime's conception of what's going on there, which is there are a lot of terrorists coming into this country from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, from places like that. This has to stop.

But then he said, you know, we do believe that there should be free elections in Syria and that is the best way to resolve this.

Now, you know, that is one glimmer of hope, because if there is going to be a political solution in Syria, that is one path by which you could imagine the Assad regime either having to share power or actually exiting altogether. It's a slender reed, but it's the first time we've heard one of -- you know, he -- Syria's main sponsor is Iran. It's the first time we've heard any prospect of some kind of political solution which might involve a different political settlement other than Assad just staying in power.

BLITZER: And on a totally unrelated matter, a separate article you just wrote for the new issue of "Time Magazine" entitled "The Case for Snooping," you make the case that the U.S. has to continue the surveillance program, the NSA surveillance program.

In a quick gist, tell us what your bottom line is.

ZAKARIA: The bottom line is this, Wolf. People don't realize, we are under constant cyber attack from all over world. The nuclear -- the National Nuclear Administration, which oversees our civilian nuclear facilities, gets 10 million cyber attacks a day. That's 3.65 billion attacks a year. Now, how do you defend against that?

You have to allow the NSA to get into those systems.

But the same is true of our banks. You know, we live in the cyber world. We want to be protected. But that freedom doesn't come free. You know, you've got to -- to protect all those systems, you have to allow the government into those systems, of course, with constraints; of course, by the rule of law. But we -- you know, you don't get liberty for free.

BLITZER: Fareed Zakaria is the host of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS," that airs Sunday mornings here on CNN, 10:00 a.m.; also, at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays.

Fareed, thanks for the excellent work.

ZAKARIA: A pleasure, Wolf.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news

BLITZER: And look at this. We're following some breaking news.

This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM -- a catastrophic scene. We want to show you these live aerial pictures we're just getting in of a major car crash in Lake County, Indiana. Multiple, multiple vehicles are involved. Look at those trucks. Look at those other vehicles. The weather there is severe right now, only 11 degrees with near, supposedly some whiteout conditions in part.

We don't have word yet on fatalities or injuries.

We're going to continue to update this story as more information comes in. But this is coming in from Lake County, Indiana. That freeway is clearly shut down in that direction right there. That's near La Porte in Indiana.

We'll get you more as soon as we get some more.

Awful pictures.

Up next, though, mindful of their image issues among voters, Republicans name a high profile woman to respond to President Obama's State of the Union Address. But at the same GOP meeting, Mike Huckabee drops a new bombshell that may have many women wincing.

And check out this new bizarre new cover of the "New York Times" Sunday magazine, featuring Hillary Clinton depicted as the man in the moon. The magazine isn't even out yet, but it looks like "The Times" is already being forced to explain.


BLITZER: After watching President Obama get re-elected, Republicans realized they have some serious issues with women and minorities, but a year later, there's still grappling with some image problems, and now, they may have a new one. Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is here with more on what's going on at this Republican Party meeting that's ongoing in Washington.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you remember very well Mitt Romney talking about binders full of women and a Republican Senate candidate talking about legitimate rape. Ever since then, Republican leaders have been trying to keep their brethren from saying anything that Democrats can use to feed into their narrative that Republicans wage a war in women. Today's comments weren't entirely what they had in mind.



BASH (voice-over): Republicans invited Mike Huckabee to address their winter meeting because he's a conservative who can turn a phrase and deliver a clear message. This was more than they bargain for.

MIKE HUCKABEE, (R) FORMER ARKANSAS GOVERNOR: And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without uncle sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

BASH: That made many Republicans here quietly wince, not exactly what they're going in their new effort to respond to Democrats who paint Republicans as anti-women extremists. This is more like it. Choosing the only female member of the House Republican leadership, Cathy McMorris Rodgers to give the GOP response to the president's state of the union address and announcing it with this carefully produced video showing her in scenes familiar to many women as a mom.

To reach female voters, the Republican National Committee is also urging GOP candidates to talk more about the thorny issue of abortion, not less, when attacked by Democrats.

But once some of your candidates go down that road, they risk stepping in a big political --

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Our candidates risk being silent and getting punched in the face on a bogus war on women and I think that they ought to fight back.

BASH: All of this, nearly a year after the RNC released a bluntly- worded autopsy after losses in 2012. "Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with or welcoming to those who do not agree with us on every issue," the report said. RNC chair Reince Priebus says they're trying to rebuild with work around the country.

PRIEBUS: We have for too long become just a U-haul trailer of money for a presidential nominee.

BASH: The RNC is sending staff and building grassroots in the communities of key voting blocs Republicans have been losing in national elections.

PRIEBUS: Here's the point, if you're not in Hispanic communities on a year on basis, if you don't represent those Congressional districts, who's there? Who's there telling the story of the Republican Party of opportunity and freedom?

BASH: But the Republican strategy to broaden its national reach for 2016 could be undercut by this November's midterm election where it's all about ginning up the GOP base.

They will be a base election.

PRIEBUS: Probably. We were naturally have an advantage walking into 2014.

BASH: Translation, the big GOP prize this year is taking the Senate by defeating Democrats in red states where the president lost. That means firing up core conservative voters.


BASH (on-camera): And nothing fires up those core conservative voters at this point more than Obamacare. Republicans are still banking on the fact that even if the bashed rollout works itself out by November's election, the republican base will still be energized enough against health care and the law to put them in a position where they really want to go to the polls -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dana, stand by. I want you to be part of this conversation. Gloria Borger is here, our chief political analyst, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent of "The New Yorker," CNN political commentator is here as well.

Gloria, what do you make of this Mike Huckabee comment? Because as Dana just reported, I guess, some women out there probably were wincing when they heard this.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, it's not exactly what I think Republicans were planning on. I mean, in the autopsy that Dana was talking about for the Republican Party, the prescriptions about how to win, they said you've got to get more aggressive on the so-called war, fight back against Democrats who say you don't care about women. I agree with Dana. This probably isn't what they had in mind. I mean, what Mike Huckabee was saying is that Democrats are insulting women by essentially trying to win them over by giving them free birth control, as he puts it, under Obamacare.

That's not exactly the discussion they want to have. The Republicans I talked to say, we've got some issues that the public is with us on. For example, parental consent on the issue of abortion, late-term abortion, for example. Let's talk about that stuff.

BASH: And also, I mean, I was there. I was watching him live and talk about this. And it was really the word libido.

BORGER: Yes. BASH: One of his friends, actually told me afterwards, somebody who's a very big supporter, "can you text him and say him don't use word libido anymore?" I said, "no, that's your job, not mine."


BASH: Yes.


BLITZER: -- Cathy McMorris Rodgers is going to give the Republican response to the president's state of the union address Tuesday night.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. One of the -- frankly, one of the few women in the GOP Republican conference in the House. I think Dana's piece captured the central box the Republicans were in in the short-term for a midterm election, base election, they have to emphasize one set of issues.

Long term with the democratic -- demographic trends in the country, the coalition that Obama put together in 2012 is what's going to overwhelm them, unless, they start appealing some of these groups, women being one of the major -- they lost about 11 points in 2012.

BORGER: Potentially, when you're talking about libido, birth control, I mean, they lost women by 11 points. Mitt Romney won married women by 11 points but single women, the Republicans lost by 36 points.

LIZZA: And I'm not a single women and never have been, but I can imagine --


LIZZA: -- and don't think that birth control is used because your libido is out of control.

BASH: By the way, back in the 1990s, we called that the sex in the city vote. I don't know --


BASH: One of the points I want to make about Cathy McMorris Rodgers which is fascinating which is that she is -- she's a record. She's the only person that has given birth in office three times. Her first son, as you saw there, he has Down's syndrome. And so, that is obviously another very big issue for the anti-abortion community out there because they believe that, you know, obviously, that this is the kind of thing that people should take pride in and that we saw that with Sarah Palin.

BORGER: But there's got to be a way to talk affirmatively to women without insulting a group of women. And I think that's what occurred today. And I think, you know, Reince Priebus is trying to reach out to them and they understand they've got to do this.

BLITZER: Ryan, you saw the Priorities USA, major -- the largest, I think, liberal Super PAC as it's called, raising now money and basically endorsing Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. It's a significant development because a lot of those folks in Priorities USA are pretty close to the president.

LIZZA: Absolutely. Jim Messina (ph) on the record in the "New York Times" today says that this group is going to be there for Hillary Clinton and this is the biggest statement so far of major Obama establishment Democrats saying that Hillary is the one and that we don't want a messy divisive primary. Jim Messina, he was not -- he's not a long-time Obama person. He doesn't go back to Senate days.

He was in the White House. He managed the campaign in 2012. And interestingly, one of his jobs was he was the liaison between the Obama world and Clinton world. He managed Bill Clinton during the campaign.

BORGER: What we don't know is whether this group would intervene in any kind of a primary should Joe Biden decide to get in the primary against Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Because it does look like a little bit of slap with Joe Biden.

BORGER: Sure. And whether this implies any kind of implicit (ph) endorsement by the president.

LIZZA: But Joe Biden, you can't just sit back. You have to be much more aggressive. You have your people on the outside doing the same thing that Hillary's people on the outside are doing.


BLITZER: You guys have now seen and I'm going to put it up on the screen, the new cover -- this isn't the "New Yorker" magazine. This is the "New York Times" Sunday magazine.



BLITZER: They've got a new cover in their Sunday edition, "Planet Hillary." Some headline, "the gravitational pull of a possible 2016 campaign is bringing all of the old Clinton characters into her orbit. Can she make the stars aligned or will chaos prevail?" A pretty controversial cover --

BASH: Of course. Right. Exactly. And that's the point of it. But the question about her inner circle, that is one that is going to be talked about and already is being talked about quietly because, you know, part of the wrap on her was that she's loyal to a fault back in 2008. But the other issue right now going on is that all of these people have been at her side for decades.

And, as somebody close to her said, they're exhausted. They're exhausted. So, they're trying to -- they're in a waiting game. They're trying to figure out whether they need to, you know, get back on the horse and get back out there again for her or not.

BLITZER: A lot of people are making fun of this cover, by the way. I don't think it's a very flattering picture of Hillary Clinton.


BORGER: The thing is, didn't "Time" magazine have the cover with the leg, the Hillary Clinton leg? Now, you've got the Hillary Clinton planet. It's difficult to figure out new ways to put Hillary Clinton on your cover without a regular picture of Hillary Clinton.

LIZZA: I have a rule after being involved in my own cover controversy never -- I never criticize anyone's magazine covers.


LIZZA: And I also have a rule that mocking politicians is perfectly normal and OK for the press and, you know, I imagine I haven't heard this. I imagine, some people are saying it's sexist. But if you were at that level, you have to be parodied (ph) and mocked and you got to live with it.

BORGER: You don't have to love it.


LIZZA: Absolutely. That's true.

BORGER: It's all about being buzzy.

BLITZER: And that certainly will create some buzz. All right. Guys, thanks very much.

BORGER: She doesn't need any more buzz, by the way.

BLITZER: Coming up, we have new details of what President Obama thinks about some fellow Democrats and the New Jersey Republican governor, Chris Christie. New developments in the scandal surrounding Chris Christie by the FBI has been talking to aides of a New Jersey mayor. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: A very long interview with President Obama covering dozens of hours of conversation, offering new insights into his mood, this five years after he took office. Joining us now is the author, David Remnick, he's the editor of "The New Yorker" magazine. Terrific work. I must say, I was really jealous how much access you had to the president, David.

But, you've -- in addition to that very long initial article, you've now posted even more and I'm going to read a sentence or two because I want your insight and give us a little flavor of the president as he continues his second term.

"Democrats up on Capitol Hill that I have relationships with know that the things I'm fighting for are things they care about, that they deeply -- that they care deeply about and that I have a genuine commitment to seeing them succeed."

The president continues, "You haven't seen me, I think, go out of my way to play against Democrats on the Hill, but I've tried to be supportive of them in every way that I can."

My take away from that was -- and you were talking about apparently one of the serious criticisms he gets. He doesn't really schmooze, he doesn't spend a lot of time with Democrats or Republicans up on Capitol Hill the way Ronald Reagan presumably did, with Tip O'Neill, and that has undermined his administration.

But go ahead and give me your understanding of what he was driving.

DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: Well, I think he thinks that schmoozing and doing all that stuff that LBJ did, at punishing people and schmoozing them and putting his arm around then, and then breaking their necks, really only matters on the margins. That what really matters and the reason he's having such difficulty getting legislation through is because of the systemic change in American politics.

The fact that the Republican Party has radicalized and moved deeply to the right, the fact that even his own Democratic Party is filled with individual actors. So Chuck Schumer can come out against the Iran policy without any fear of punishment and any fear of party discipline. So politics has changed independent of Barack Obama. But there's no doubt that schmoozing is not his thing.

BLITZER: Yes, but even some Democrats were up for reelection like Kay Hagan in North Carolina, for example, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, they seem to be -- I don't want to say running away from the president but they don't want to necessarily be in photo ops with him.

REMNICK: Well, look at the states you just named. North Carolina, Louisiana, you could say the same about Alaska. These are not states that are easy for Democrats by any stretch of the imagination. They consider themselves to the right of the president on issues like gun control and they can't risk being too closely associated with him. And I think that would have been true with any other center-left Democrat president.

BLITZER: You know, I came away from the initial article, which was very long, and part two which has just been posted --


REMNICK: It's a director's cut. Yes.



BLITZER: I'm just wondering if you agree that he seems to be sort of deflated right now.

REMNICK: I don't.

BLITZER: Clearly he came in with all sorts of grand ideas but now he sees the reality of Washington, he's a little bit depressed.

REMNICK: No, I don't agree with that at all. I think when you're spending some hours with a print reporter like me, you're talking in a different vein than if you're speaking in front of 25,000 people in a football stadium.

I think -- it's a different tone of voice, a different level of rhetoric. When he was with me, there's no doubt that it was a more introspective thoughtful move. And when you're in front of a big crowd that's cheering and applauding and where you're giving your State of the Union address, it's very different.

I don't accept this business that he's deflated or depressed. And that's been some of the reaction to the piece I published in "The New Yorker."

BLITZER: Yes. That's been the reaction indeed. By the way, we're showing our viewers some live pictures of the president over at the White House. We're going to monitor what he's saying. He's got a nice event going on over there.

REMNICK: He doesn't look too depressed to me.

BLITZER: No, he doesn't look depressed at all.

REMNICK: It's all right.

BLITZER: He's got a big -- a big State of the Union address Tuesday. Did he give you a little sense of what he might be unveiling?

REMNICK: Yes. I think -- I think that you're going to see greater use of the bully pulpit on issues like the gigantic gap in opportunity between the very wealthy and the rest of us. Middle class especially and the poor. And the gap grows and grows and grows between that very top slice of American society and everybody else.

And I think he feels that not only for reasons of fairness, for reasons of decency and morality, but even for economic reasons this is bad for the country. This kind of hyper deluxe economy where there's a few winners and everybody else is struggling to keep pace and struggle to -- struggling to put food on the table and have a decent life. That that is no way to move forward.

And he may not -- again, he may not pass legislation even of the most rudimentary sort, even on increasing the minimum wage might not succeed but he's going to use the bully pulpit more and more, beginning with the State of the Union address on Tuesday.

BLITZER: We'll, of course, have live coverage of that. Very quickly, I thought he was really nice to Chris Christie and the comments he had with you in part two of your interview.

REMNICK: Well, I would say he dodged the question. I think you've had the experiences I have with the politician that just doesn't want to go near a hot topic. There's nothing in it for the president of the United States to give me a long disposition on the George Washington Bridge controversy with Chris Christie.

So he basically said, you know, I had a good relationship with him. I have a good relationship with him, and I don't know -- as he said, I don't know the full details. I don't have enough information about this, which is about as, you know, rudimentary a dodge as a politician can make.

BLITZER: I thought he was very nice to Bob Gates, too, who had some very positive things about him in that -- in his new book "Duty" but also had some criticism. I assume you agree with me on that?

REMNICK: I do. And he gave me what I would call a long cloud of words that amounted to not much just to avoid getting into it with Bob Gates because, after all, any time a president of the United States says anything, it becomes big news so he talked to me in great detail about marijuana, for example, and that became big news or his discussion of Syria became news. So he's got to be very careful not to pick fights that are completely unnecessary politically speaking.

BLITZER: David Remnick is the editor of "The New Yorker" magazine.

David, I know -- there's a cover of the new issue of the "New Yorker." Excellent work, obviously. It's a long, long article but I recommend it to all of our viewers here in the United States and around the world. And good luck. I know you're off to Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympic Games. Be careful over there. Hopefully we'll have you back, we can talk about that at some point as well.

REMNICK: Thanks very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, the CNN investigation digs up some new developments in that scandal swirling about the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

And we'll take you to an ancient Christian village now on the front lines of Syria's civil war. Why many Christians are now siding with the Bashar al-Assad regime.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We have an update now on the breaking news we've been following, that catastrophic scene. Look at it. A major multivehicle crash in Lake County, Indiana. We're now hearing at least one person is dead. This, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

The weather there is severe right now. Only 11 degrees in parts of the area near whiteout conditions. And there's concern that people backed up in traffic could run out of gas or heat as they are waiting for this mess to be untangled. We're going to continue to monitor this awful situation and bring you new information as it comes in. While Syrian peace talks have gotten off to a rocky start in Switzerland, the brutal civil war rages on. Many Syrian Christians are siding with the Bashar al-Assad regime fearing an onslaught by jihadist.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen visited a Christian community on the front lines there. We must warn you, some of his report that you're about to see contains very graphic images.

Fred is joining us now live from Damascus.

Set the scene, Fred. What did you see?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, there's been some very high-profile attacks by Islamists on Christians here in Syria and they do fear for the very existence of Christianity here in this country. There have been churches that have been attacked, churches that have been burned, bishops that have been kidnapped and killed and now a major attack on a monastery.

We visited that site today and here's what we saw.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): A statue of Jesus Christ watches over the Syrian town Saidnaya. But at the Savior's feet, a gruesome sight. Dozens of badly mutilated and charred bodies.

The dead are rebel fighters who tried to storm a monastery at the top of the hill, says the regime. "They attacked from a village on that mountain back there," this fighter says, "and destroyed our front gate."

The Cherubim Monastery is not a civilian target these days. It's filled with pro-Assad fighters, mostly Christians, and some regular Syrian army forces as well. There's artillery, tanks, and mortars stationed inside.

(On camera): The fighters here say that in the past couple of days there's been a massive increase in the violence in this area. They say that in the past few days alone, 40 mortars either hit inside the monastery or around the premises. And if you look outside, that burned out vehicle also was destroyed in a recent attack.

(Voice-over): Saidnaya is an ancient town with a strong Christian heritage. Rebels have often accused Syria's Christians of collaborating with the Assad regime. This social media video allegedly shows Sunni towns getting shelled from the monastery at the top of the hill above Saidnaya, but we cannot independently verify its authenticity.

But many of Syria's Christians feel threatened by the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. In recent months, one of the main Christian towns was stormed by Islamist rebels, a group of nuns was kidnapped. Many fear Christians could be pushed out of Syria altogether. "I just don't think so, I'm certain they are targeting us because we're Christian. They are targeting us and we've had many attacks," says this Christian fighter.

Syria's splintered rebel groups have done little to assure Christians that they'd be welcomed in a post-Assad country. So as the regime and opposition tried to negotiate in Geneva, many Christians here fear an end of the Assad regime could lead to even tougher times for Syria's Christian community.


PLEITGEN: It's not just the end of Bashar al-Assad himself, Wolf, that the Christians here are worried about, it's that whole support structure, the whole power structure that is in place here where they feel that that power structure has guaranteed the stability that allows them to live in this country and they're very worried about what could happen if that power structure falls apart, very worried, of course, about Islamist groups possibly becoming much more powerful here in this country -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen, one of the few Western correspondents in Damascus right now.

Fred, thanks very much. We'll check back with you tomorrow.

When we come back here in the SITUATION ROOM, he's the conservative trying to take down the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate. And he just received a major endorsement. My interview with businessman Matt Bevin is next.

Plus, we have new details in the growing scandal surrounding the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. New allegations his lieutenant governor played politics with Superstorm Sandy's funds.


BLITZER: And this just coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. Some new details on the scandal swirling around the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie today, including FBI involvement and federal subpoenas.

Let's bring in Chris Frates of CNN Investigations.

What are you learning, Chris?

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'll tell you, Wolf, there are developments on two fronts today. First, there are at least three people who are now backing up Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's version of the story. You'll recall that Zimmer said that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened Sandy funding for Hoboken unless Zimmer backed a re-development plan that Chris Christie supported.

Now the lieutenant governor says the accusations are false but now three people are saying Zimmer told them about the ultimatum soon after that conversation with the lieutenant governor last May. And a source is telling CNN that the FBI has interviewed two of Mayor Zimmer's former -- current staffers and in addition, we just talked to a Hoboken city councilman. His name is David Mellow, and he says Zimmer told him about the -- the encounter over the summer.


DAVID MELLO, HOBOKEN CITY COUNCIL: I'm going to talk to the U.S. attorney I believe next week and I'm going to share with them everything I can about what was shared with me this past summer and that I can corroborate at least back to that date, you know, most of the key facets of what the mayor has conveyed to the media.

I absolutely believe her. Even if -- even if she hadn't told me much of what she's told to the media this past summer, I would still believe her. I've known her for years.


FRATES: Now Councilman Mello is a Zimmer supporter. Earlier this week on his Facebook page, he wrote, quote, "Very proud of Mayor Zimmer for exposing herself to this and coming forward with this important and hundred percent true revelation."

BLITZER: You're also learning some new details about the initial so- called Bridgegate scandal.

FRATES: Well, that's right, Wolf. Both the governor's re-election campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee have been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for documents relating to the lane closures of the George Washington Bridge. Now this is in addition to the investigation and subpoenas by state lawmakers.

BLITZER: This story is obviously not going away by any means.

Chris Frates, thanks very much for that report.

FRATES: Thank you.

BLITZER: He's a conservative trying to take down the most powerful Republican in the United States Senate, the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and he just got a major endorsement which could give him a critical boost in momentum in the race to Kentucky's Republican primary, now just a few months away.

And Matt Bevin is joining us now from Louisville, Kentucky.

Matt, thanks very much for coming in. Tell us why you think Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the United States Senate, should be ousted and you should be the next senator from Kentucky?

MATT BEVIN (R), KENTUCKY SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: Well, my reasons for thinking so are really the reasons of the people of Kentucky whose voices I listen to for some months before even jumping into this race. And you know, they probably are summed up in the fact that 30 years is a long time for a person to go somewhere. They change, they become less of who they once were and there are many people here in Kentucky who do not feel that our voices are well represented by Mitch McConnell, that he really does not embrace the conservative thinking of most of the voters here in Kentucky.

And I am willing to step forward as a person to give people a choice in this upcoming primary.

BLITZER: Freedom Works, the conservative PAC, has just endorsed you. A lot of Tea Party supporters like you a lot. But you have a huge uphill struggle. A lot of Republicans fear you're just going to weaken Mitch McConnell, that he'll get the Republican nomination but you'll damage him in the process, setting the stage potentially for the Democrat to win the election. What say you?

BEVIN: It sounds like they're already making excuses, doesn't it? I mean, this from a man who is already the weakest senator in the United States among his own constituents with only a 31 percent approval rating. I don't think he needs me to weaken him. I think he's done a pretty good job of it on his own, frankly.

BLITZER: You know, historically speaking, no party leader has ever lost in a primary. You know that?

BEVIN: I do know that. It's time to make some history here in Kentucky. We've done it before.

BLITZER: You've suggested in a recent interview that this campaign was engaged in, quote, "thuggery" against you. What do you mean by that?

BEVIN: You know, it's -- you've covered this business for a long time, Wolf, so you understand there's a lot of -- back-story to what people see on the front side of a campaign and there are always the shiny baubles, the -- kind of the velvet glove and then there's the iron fist. And there's been more than a little bit of both in this campaign but I'm not an individual who will either be bought or -- bullied out of the arena because truth be told, the people of Kentucky deserve a choice. And that's what we're going to give them.

BLITZER: The word thuggery, though, that's a pretty big word. Give me one example of what you say backs up that word.

BEVIN: Well, let's -- you know, for example, I was told that if -- by the time this campaign were over, if I were to move forward, that the people who sit behind me in church would get up and leave when I came in. That's the type of thing I'm talking about. But I have yet to see that come to fruition. I'm not too concerned about it.

BLITZER: Have you seen any evidence, though, of like real negative politics, something really disastrous, something ugly that has gone against you?

BEVIN: No, I mean, the same old noise that we expect from Mitch McConnell. I mean, he is the man who takes this slash-and-burn approach. It's the way he's always gone about things. And again, I'm not too concerned about it. Most of his allegations in his ads against me have been absolutely outright lies. He knows them to be. But as you know in the world of politics, that's considered fair game. So I expect there will be more of the same. I think when we're done, he will stoop to levels the likes will make Aqua Buddha look like a warm-up act. I'm convinced of that.

BLITZER: What do you mean? The primary is at the end of the May. So what does that mean? Give me another example.

BEVIN: It is. I think that we'll continue to see increasingly desperate ads from him. My job in this campaign is to focus on the issues, to focus on the economy, to focus on the issues of debt in this nation, to focus on issues like amnesty. To focus on things that the people of Kentucky care about. His attack and tact seems to be simply just to take the lowest common denominator, slash and burn, both with myself and with the Democrat contender.

Kind of rhymes with people's names and silly little videos and names, and things that frankly are demeaning to the office itself. They're beneath the dignity of the office that he holds in my opinion.

BLITZER: A lot of Tea Party supporters like you, they support you, but Senator Rand Paul, who's a darling among a lot of Tea Party folks out there, he has endorsed Mitch McConnell. I assume you're pretty disappointed in that?

BEVIN: He did this long before I was in the race. And in fairness to Rand, he's a man of his word. He made that commitment before I ever entered the fray and he is sticking with that commitment. I have a lot of respect for Rand. I really do. I supported him in his primary and in his general. I voted for him both times. Maxed out to him personally. He's a guy that I would vote for again.

I like the way that he represents us in the U.S. Senate. I think it would be great if he saw the light and realized he and I are much more alike than are he and Mitch McConnell, but he's committing to what he said he would early on.

BLITZER: I want to show our viewers very quickly a photograph of you and your family.

BEVIN: I'm not sure of the exact picture you're looking at right now but --

BLITZER: It shows you with a lot of kids.

BEVIN: My wife and I and are -- a lot of kids. And yes, we do have nine children. I grew up as one of six children in a very simple way, out in the country, very simple life. In my life, after paying my way through school, joined the military, got out, went into the business world and I've been very blessed.

I have lived the American dream, Wolf, I really have. And in the course of that I've always had a heart as has my wife for the 167 million orphans in the world, and we realized some years back that we should try to embody our thinking by visually representing this need and doing something about it. And so four of our nine children are adopted. And it's been an absolute blessing in many, many senses of that word.

BLITZER: And you adopted them in Ethiopia. You have a beautiful family indeed.

Matt Bevin, thanks so much. We invited Mitch McConnell to join us. We have an open invitation to him whenever he wants to come into to the SITUATION, he's more than welcome. And if the two of you would like to do a debate, we more than welcome both of you to join us in a debate as well.

Thanks very much for joining us.

BEVIN: I would love it. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

BLITZER: And just ahead, we're going to give you an update on the breaking news we've been following here in the SITUATION ROOM, that deadly pile-up. Look at these pictures in Indiana. New information just coming in.

Also our Jake Tapper chats with the NSA leaker Edward Snowden on Twitter. He's here with the details of that conversation. That's coming up right at the top of the hour.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get an update now on the breaking news we're following, that major pile-up in Lake County, Indiana. Two people are now confirmed dead and authorities say the crash involves at least a dozen semi trucks and too many vehicles to count.