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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Royal Caribbean Returned to New Jersey Port Earlier Than Scheduled; Is It Safe to Come to Sochi?; Interview with Dana Rohrabacher

Aired January 29, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to the LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Another international news, when a cruise ship returns to port, it's typically a parade of happy, well-rested, slightly shall we say full passengers disembarking back to their normal lives. But those on Royal Caribbean explorer of the seas probably needed a sick bag on the way out today. The boat returned to its port in New Jersey two days early after nearly 700 passengers became physically ill according to the centers for disease control. We won't get into the details of the symptoms. Let's just call them unpleasant. The culprit is likely the norovirus, a common outbreak on cruise ships due to the cramped quarters.

So, how did passengers spend their time aboard the floating germ factory? Well, CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has been covering the story. She joins us now from the Cape Liberty port with one of the passengers on the ship -- Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, hi.

Yes, some passengers have really these incredible nightmare stories and some of them are blaming Royal Caribbean, but not everyone. I want to bring on one passenger, Theresa (INAUDIBLE), who is from Pennsylvania. Whitehall, Pennsylvania. And tell me about your experience that you had and your husband.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My husband got sick on the 23rd, diarrhea, vomiting, and then I got sick on the 25th. But I had a sore throat and chills, fever, but the doctor couldn't do anything for that because he wanted to treat the virus at first.

COHEN: So while you and your husband were suffering, what did you do?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were confined to our room for 24 hours. Only could have jell-o or water or banana. And stay in our room until, like I said, the 24 hours.

COHEN: Well, it definitely doesn't sound like a dream cruise. And I know you've been on many and all have been fine except this one. Do you think that Royal Caribbean could have done anything differently or is this just an act of God?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Act of God. They did everything they can. They went way out of their way and they did a good job. They were right there for you.

COHEN: Well, I hope you get home to Whitehall, Pennsylvania, safely. And I hope that you are feeling better. I can see you're not 100 percent so, thank you for joining us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure.

COHEN: Jake, back to you.

TAPPER: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks. And feel better, Theresa, and your family.

It's the question that likely will get asked until the last athletes and fans have left, is Sochi safe? The Olympic city itself might be tight as a drum but metro Sochi has officials concerned. That's coming up next.

Plus, maybe he thought he was auditioning for a Scorsese movie or an after-school special on bullying. What the congressman is saying now after his shocking threat to a reporter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

In our world lead, the head of the Sochi Olympics proclaimed today that Sochi is, quote, "the most secure venue at the moment on the planet," unquote. Sound reassuring, kind of. But what about the surrounding area where tourists will have to sleep and eat?

Matt Olson, who is director of the national country terrorism center, testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee today. He was asked about how they're monitoring the Olympics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATT OLSON, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL COUNTRY TERRORISM CENTER: The biggest issue from my perspective is not the games themselves, the venues themselves. There's extensive security at those locations, the sites of the events. The greater threat is to softer targets in the greater Sochi area and in the outskirts beyond Sochi where there is a substantial potential for a terrorist attack.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And joining me now from his recent trip to Russia is Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California. He is the chairman of the emerging threat subcommittee of the house committee on foreign affairs.

Congressman Rohrabacher, thanks for joining us. You just returned from Moscow. It was part of a larger congressional delegation trip on anti-terrorism and cybersecurity. You met with some senior Russian officials. So tell us, what are they telling you about Sochi? Are they confident they'll be able to prevent a terrorist attack? REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: I think they're psyched out, to use the California language. They are so focused on this and, you know, and they're obviously concerned about terrorist attacks. They want it to be a successful Olympics. And they're frantically trying to make sure it's true.

TAPPER: And the chief organizer of the Sochi Olympics has said that Sochi is the most secure venue on the planet. You agree with that?

ROHRABACHER: No, I don't. And I think it was a mistake to choose -- well, for the Russians to move forward as aggressively as they did to try to get the Olympics this year. We should have a higher level of cooperation than we have. And I would blame the lack of that cooperation on people in both countries in our country and their country who can't get over the fact that the cold war is over. And we have a demonizing of Putin and the current Russian government as if it was the same as Brezhnev back in the cold war days, which is absolutely a false image that's being created. And then you've got people in Russia who are old communists and just can't believe that they lost this precious communism they supposedly believed in all this time. So our level of cooperation should be a lot higher.

TAPPER: Some Olympians are telling their families to stay home, not go to the games. What would you tell your families? Do you think it's safe to go?

ROHRABACHER: Yes, I do.

TAPPER: To Russia? And what about the soft targets outside of Sochi? Are you worried about that at all?

ROHRABACHER: I think it's safe to go to this Olympics as it would be in any major area, urban area, because terrorists obviously set off bombs everywhere in the world. I mean, in Spain, you know, they blew up some trains there just like they blew up some trains in Volgograd just a couple of months ago. So yes, there is some risk but I would think we should stand up to the terrorists and tell the world that this is not a time to step back but it's a time to step up and tell the terrorists we will not be intimidated and we will work with the Russians and anyone else to defeat radical Islamic trim.

TAPPER: Congressman, obviously the state of the union was last night. Before you go, I wanted your take on it. You called the substance of the speech, quote, "incredibly bridge rent and incredibly arrogant" because of the president's push to take action without Congress. What do you say to Democrat who is say, look, the president has put forward issues and Congress hasn't come through on any big initiatives, especially Republicans in the house, this is only way he can get anything done? What's your response to that?

ROHRABACHER: That's the only way he can get his way is what they should be saying. The bottom line is we have a system that has a legislative branch, an executive branch that are supposed to be equal branches of government along with the judiciary, of course. And the president of the United States has to go through the regular process of negotiating with people, working through committees, having the type of compromises that happen in a Democratic society. Instead, he feels hampered by that.

And last night, although the tone of his speech was very good and he sounded businesslike and let's get things done, in are reality he was basically acting as an arrogant, horribly arrogant official saying it's either my way or the highway. And no, I'm wondering if he thinks he was elected king where he doesn't need the Congress to pass legislation authorizing the things that he's doing.

TAPPER: That's probably the fantasy of many a president, not just this president.

ROHRABACHER: Yes. Most of them hold that in check and are able to control that natural desire of someone in power to insist on obedience from all these lesser people like members of congress. But he's got a problem there, and he's not going to further cooperation with Congress by making demands and claiming he's going to do it on his own unless we do what he wants.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, thanks so much. We'll have you back to talk about some of the issues you want to get accomplished and what the president wants to get accomplished. Thanks again.

ROHRABACHER: Right.

TAPPER: Will Hillary have to say no before Joe says yes? A peek ahead to the 2016 presidential race next.

And later, brain damage, school for terrorists. That's how top defense officials describe what Edward Snowden's leaks have done. Details ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now it's time for the Politics Lead. Old habits die hard, fresh off last night's speech, the president was very in campaign mode today despite the fact that he's not actually running for anything and he probably never will ever again. He spoke in Maryland and Pennsylvania today, pushing last night's state of the union message that 2014 can be a year of action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I'm choosing this to be a year of action because too many Americans are working harder than ever just to get by, much less get ahead. The scars of the recession are real. The middle class has been taking it on the chin since before the recession.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Mired in Washington gridlock, however, and frankly dismal approval ratings, can the president really make good on this optimistic message? Joining me now is former President Obama speechwriter, Jon Lovett and former deputy press secretary for the Obama 2008 campaign, Ben Labolt. Good to see you guys. Thanks for being here.

Let's go over the speech a little and then we will talk about some other political things. Jon, "The New York Times" called the speech a study in scaled-down ambition. Agree?

JON LOVETT, FORMER OBAMA SPEECHWRITER: No.

TAPPER: You don't?

LOVETT: Look, as with all state of the unions, there is a number of very big policies, immigration reform is a big policy, tax reform is one of the biggest things and piece of low-hanging fruit that this Congress can do with the president to improve the economy and change the dynamic and jobs and all sorts of things. They're also small proposals.

The thing is if the president had included even one more big piece of legislation in his state of the union, the same writers would have said he's being naive and overpromising. So look, I think people are looking through the speech and picking and choosing what they want, but it was a balance of big things and small things as every single state of the union has been.

TAPPER: These are annoying speeches to write though, right? They're not as fun as more messages oriented or tributes to great people, I mean, as a speechwriter.

LOVETT: They're a big lift. I think, you know, the lead speechwriter tends to spend months on these things and they are difficult because they are a both a way of figuring out what the administration is going to say to the country, but also what the administration is saying to itself. I mean, there are agencies that seem to - come into existence around the time of the state of the union and they disappear shortly after the speech.

TAPPER: I remember the references to salmon a few years ago.

LOVETT: The battle to make a joke about salmon and the number of agencies concerned that, well, you don't understand, sometimes they're in saltwater, sometimes they're in fresh water.

TAPPER: Difficult fishy issue. Sorry. Ben, do you think anything the president listed last night can actually be accomplished? Don't give me the optimistic, sure, in a world we all come together. Like what do you think actually can happen? Can Gitmo be closed? Can the minimum wage be raised?

BEN LABOLT, FORMER DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY, OBAMA 2008 CAMPAIGN: Let's start with the legislative front. I mean, the big-ticket item that has the best chance of passage is comprehensive immigration reform. Why, because it's in the political interests of the Republican Party. We made a calculation at the beginning of the re-election campaign saying if the president can win 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, if you look at states like Colorado and Nevada, Mitt Romney cannot be the next president of the United States. And if the Republican Party doesn't do something to repair their image among Hispanics they will continue to lose the White House. I think the leadership of the party recognizes that and they're trying to find a way through Congress. I think the president also invokes the "don't fool me twice" principle last night when it comes to getting other major things through Congress.

And he said as the chief executive of the nation, I'm going to be willing to take some executive actions. And I think on things like advancing economic security of the middle class, that's what you're going to see from him over the next year.

TAPPER: Let's look ahead to 2016 because I know that's what you guys love to talk about, 2016. Vice President Biden was on the morning shows today. This is what he said when I asked if Hillary Clinton's decision will influence whether he runs in 2016 or not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: No, not directly. The only reason a man or woman should run for president, I'm sure Hillary sees it the same way, is that they're better positioned to do what the nation needs at the moment and what is the plan you have for the country and that's the only thing that generates whether you run.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I don't know if that's -- I believe that you need to have the fire in the belly, but -- we should disclose you worked for the Hillary campaign in 2008. If Hillary runs, there are a lot of people who are going to -- not going to run if she's running.

LOVETT: You know, I thought about this a lot and I really don't care about 2016.

TAPPER: How can you not care?

LOVETT: If we were having this conversation in early 2006, we'd be discussing whether or not Mark Warner is going to be the next president. We'd say of course not, nobody can beat Hillary. So I don't really think -- I just can't bring myself to have an opinion.

TAPPER: What if she called you and said I want you to work on my 2016 campaign? Would you be willing to entertain that thought? Are you willing to work for her again?

LOVETT: I got so much on my plate right now, Jake, but, look, if duty calls, I'll do it.

TAPPER: Are you associated with any of the 2016 hopefuls?

LABOLT: No. I'm not. Here's my sense of the matter. I don't think you see a scenario where both a vice president and a secretary launch a primary campaign. There will be some behind-the-scenes jockeying in the course of the next year. One calculation they'll make is where's my activist base, where are my donors, who are the most talented staff that I can recruit, and I think there's overlap between those two universes so there has to be something they're both thinking about right now.

TAPPER: I think that's fair. What do you make as Obama and White House alums? I know you're all independent, but there are a lot of Obama White House alumni, Jim Messina most notably, but others as well who are basically signing up for Hillary's phantom campaign. This is going to be tricky for President Obama. He doesn't want to take sides, and yet there is this ground swell for Hillary.

LABOLT: I certainly think she is eating up the most oxygen in the race right now, as John said --

TAPPER: Not far before -- I may buy the whole thing.

LABOLT: It is so many years before Election Day right now, I think some of the 2016 coverage has been a little breathless. Christie had been declared a frontrunner before the primaries had lunched and he's already had a significant issue. And pundits are remaking the field. There is a lot to play out here.

TAPPER: One last issue and it's not 2016 related. The vice president responded to former Defense Secretary Bob Gates who said that Joe Biden had been wrong on everything.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Bob Gates and I disagree on almost every major issue, and I'm very comfortable with my position. I let the American public judge who's been right or wrong. Bob Gates or me, and history will judge ultimately who was right or wrong. But he's a fine man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He specifically cited things that he had been right on, he thought, Bosnia, Iran contra and Vietnam, a little defensive I would say.

LOVETT: Look, I think the key thing right now is we should be re- litigating about 30, 40 years of foreign policy on television.

TAPPER: That's what you want to do?

LOVETT: I think --

LABOLT: Is that what you had on your plate?

LOVETT: Yes, that's right.

TAPPER: All right, we'll start with Panama right after the break. Jon Lovett and Ben Labolt, thanks so much for coming in.

When we come back, a medical breakthrough with major implications, why scientists are saying their latest research could be the first step in the fight against deadly diseases next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD now. Time for our Buried Lead, the top intelligence official in the United States wants some cooperation from the man who leaked U.S. secrets to the media. I'm talking of course about Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor now living in Russia. Director of national intelligence General James Clapper says Snowden's leaks have gone far beyond his stated concerns over surveillance and privacy.

Clapper says terrorists have gone to school with Snowden's information, serving as a kind of terrorist textbook he says and the leaks are making the intelligence community's job much harder. Clapper made a personal appeal to Snowden today on Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Snowden claims that he's won and that his mission is accomplished. If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facility the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed to prevent more damage to U.S. security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: His accomplices? I assume he's not talking about journalists. This hearing is known as the worldwide threat brief the same briefing where Clapper last March lied to Congress about whether he knew the government collected data on Americans, not wittingly, Clapper answered.

And new stem cell research could turn biology on its ear. Scientists at Harvard and in Japan found a way to turn adult mouse cells back into stem cells without alternating their DNA, which pretty much flies in the face of what's written in biology textbooks. The researchers say if this can be repeated in humans, it will be a huge step in learning how stem cells can be used to treat diseases.

Fifty years ago, the Beatles arrived in the United States for their first American tour. See it all unfold as it happened with rarely seen footage and interviews from the bands that led the "British Invasion," a special episode of CNN original series, "The '60s," that premiers tomorrow night at 9:00 Eastern.

This programming note, I will be speaking exclusively with President Obama in his first interview since the state of the union address that will air Friday morning on "NEW DAY" and right here on THE LEAD at 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday. If you have a question for the president, you can tweet me @jaketapper.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Wolf.