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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Ted Cruz Under Fire; Travel Nightmare; Prisoners Released in Afghanistan Over U.S. Objections; Cruz Takes on GOP Critics

Aired February 14, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, who needs love this Valentine's Day, when you can stream the new season of "House of Cards" that just posted and revel in their juicy, delicious hate?

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead, hearts are melting on this day, and so is the snow, but not fast enough to get travel back on track this holiday weekend, after the worst travel day of the winter froze air travel. Oh, you will just drive instead? Well, maybe that's not a great idea either.

The world lead, 65 prisoners in Afghanistan, the U.S. military says they killed American troops and innocent Afghans. So why did the Afghan government give them each clothes, coats, 90 bucks and let them walk out of jail as free men?

And the pop culture lead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": If anybody knows that marijuana does not prevent you from rising to the top, it would be him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: If donating a million bucks to a pro-Obama super PAC can't get you legalized pot, what on earth can? Comedian Bill Maher on President Obama's priorities, which 2016 presidential hopefuls are practically writing the jokes for him, and his plan to hit his least favorite congressman right where he lives.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD. Happy Valentine's Day.

We will begin with the national lead. Guys, if you forget to send your significant other flowers this Valentine's Day, you do have a perfect excuse. The storm really has delayed tens of thousands of flower deliveries. But we will go ahead and file that as one of our lesser concerns as the nation tries to recover from the worst travel day of the season.

This winter, that is really something saying. If you're traveling by air this weekend, I wish I had better news, more than 8,000 flights canceled over the past 36 hours or so and more than a million airline passengers affected by that.

I want to get right to Sunlen Serfaty at Reagan National Airport.

Sunlen, it's Valentine's Day today, President's Day on Monday. What are the odds that anybody is going to get where they want to go this weekend?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the odds are not great. As you can see, this line behind me is just one indication of that. As you said, yesterday was the single worst travel day yet this winter.

So, today, it's the hangover.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): This is what the day after looks like, the wake of this storm for travelers just brutal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have been bumped about -- this will be the second or third time. I'm trying to quit counting.

SERFATY: More man 6,500 flights were canceled Thursday, over 1,100 flights today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what was necessary because this storm was so broad and impacted so many key cities. And so that's really why those numbers get so big.

SERFATY: Add to that thousands of delays. Patience wore thin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our original flight was earlier this morning and it was delayed, and still is, apparently, but it won't let us get a ticket because our connecting flight in Philadelphia is probably going to be rescheduled. So, we're in a line to actually talk to an agent.

SERFATY: From Charlotte and Newark, hit with the most cancellations, to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., thousands are still stranded today, no idea when they could get home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The circumstances are not preferred, but they are what they are, and I will tell you that. This is to a certain extent deluxe accommodations for the circumstances I'm dealing with right now.

SERFATY: As the sun came up this morning, airports were still working to clear snow from the runways and airlines still working to clear boards like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest sin that you can have on a big event like this is take a -- let a one-day event become a two-day event or a two-day event become a three-day event when the weather doesn't really drive that.

SERFATY: Passengers who spent the night at the airport are still waiting. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I took time off from work. I'm going to San Francisco for Valentine's Day, and it's pretty much over with.

SERFATY: One thing flying freely, anger on social media. One irate passenger tweeted -- quote -- "Stop canceling flights, Philly Airport."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm supposed to officiate my sister's wedding. And so it just -- and it was a small wedding, but it's still -- it's like incredibly emotional not to be able to be there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And so much of that frustration is because it's already been such a hard travel season for travelers. Jake, this has already cost consumers $3 billion just this winter alone just in delays and cancellations -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sunlen Serfaty, thank you so much.

If you're taking your chances on the roads today, well, beware. Flo and Progressive and that Geico gecko, they're undoubtedly having a busy day today. Traffic is starting to move again on the Pennsylvania Turnpike after slushy road conditions helped created a series of pileups near Philadelphia. More than 100 cars involved in nearly two dozen crashes along just a short stretch of the turnpike.

Accidents led to drivers hitting the brakes too quickly, which led to more accidents. The backup went on more files, drivers stuck in place for hours.

Let's get right to our Margaret Conley standing near the trouble spot.

Margaret, how is the traffic flow now?

MARGARET CONLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it's been a chaotic scene since 8:00 this morning.

That's when we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We were heading east towards New Jersey and that's when there was about a 100-car pileup. We have since learned that there were individual accidents that led to this pileup. There were as many as 20 of them.

It was a very difficult scene for emergency workers to try to get up through those cars. That's also what caused a lot of the backup, because on this turnpike there are very few exit and on-ramps.

Now, of the injured, we do know that 30 people were injured, at least five of them serious. We just came from the hospital where those five patients were taken. We talked to the hospital people there. They said that one person was admitted unconscious, likely from a head injury, but he's since regained consciousness. And so we're looking to see how things develop with all of them.

Now, we also do know that there were no fatalities, but it does look like, Jake, that the entrance to the turnpike eastbound has reopened. TAPPER: And, Margaret, at first, authorities were not blaming the weather for this series of accidents?

CONLEY: Yes. The turnpike officials, they were denying that weather was involved, which seemed odd because we have been talking about the weather for the last two weeks. There are hard-hit areas with power outage. We saw a lot of snow. We saw a lot of ice.

Later, the state police came out and said sun glare and the wet roads, possibly ice could have been factors with all of this deceiving people. The roads looked clear, but in fact they were not. Now, we do know an investigation is going on. The cars that were involved with this pileup, they have been moved to another location and they are going to be investigating all of those cars looking into it throughout the weekend -- Jake.

TAPPER: Margaret Conley, thank you so much.

Turning to the world lead now, yesterday at Bagram Airfield, the Afghan yesterday freed 65 men accused of being dangerous insurgents, freed them, this after the U.S. military has intensely lobbied to keep the prisoners detained, arguing that the prisoners were directly tied to attacks killing or wounding 23 Americans or coalition personnel and 23 Afghans, security personnel or civilians.

But those American pleas were rebuffed, much to the disappointment of the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Afghan government released detainees that we believe pose a continuing threat to coalition forces and to Afghans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The news has many people asking, why? Why would the Afghan government free prisoners who pose a threat to our forces?

Well, here's what is really going on. First, the U.S. detains prisoners under the wartime law of detention. Simply put, American forces want bad guys off the battlefield, so they don't pose a risk.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he sees these prisoners through the lens of criminal law, which there is a higher burden of evidence. An Afghan review board ruled that these men should be freed, supported by a defiant Karzai, eager to assert Afghan sovereignty.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAMID KARZAI, PRESIDENT OF AFGHANISTAN: If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Then there's a second point to make here, and that is the American lack of trust in Karzai, whose operating premise, the U.S. officials say, is that there is no insurgency against the Afghan government.

Karzai sees this as a war between the U.S. and Pakistani insurgents, joined by some Afghans who he says has been radicalized because of the U.S. After all, the U.S. argued to Karzai that many of these 65 prisoners could have been prosecuted. Now, many American officials privately say it's an open question as to whether Karzai takes seriously the threat posed by Afghans who have killed American troops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: It's not just the United States force in Afghanistan who are now victims of this, but so are the Afghan people, because many of these individuals killed innocent Afghans as well. They are criminals, terrorists. They need to be detained and they are not now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Third and final point, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are worried about not only what violence may be committed by these 65 freed prisoners and 23 others who may soon be released, but how much of the policy will impact the field of battle. What happens if Afghan soldiers have no confidence that someone they detain for being part of an ambush won't be quickly released back into battle by Karzai?

U.S. officials in Afghanistan, sources tell me, wonder, even if the U.S. is training Afghan forces to abide by certain codes of conduct, could this policy result in mercenary action on the battlefield by Afghan forces, execution, instead of detention? These are all complicated questions and as with all things in Afghanistan, who knows what the blowback will be or where it will go?

Coming up on THE LEAD: outspoken Republican Senator Ted Cruz causing problems for his own party again, why he's accusing his fellow Republicans of siding with Democrats.

Plus, the president refused to pick between Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden when I asked him, so can former NBA great Charles Barkley get him on the record in the LeBron vs. Jordan debate? Our new one-on-one with President Obama coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

It's time for our politics lead now. There's one traveler who had no problem flying out of the D.C. area. It's a privilege one enjoys as president of the United States. President Obama is on his way to the warmer, drier climate of Fresno, California. Actually, the state is far too warm and dry right now. That's the problem. California is in the middle of its worst drought in a century. During the president's visit, he will announce more than $160 million in federal aid for the state's farmers and ranchers. Much of that money will come from the hard-fought farm bill the president signed last week. We will have more on the drought next week on THE LEAD.

In other political news, Republican Senator Ted Cruz is from Texas, but I don't know if he's used to the kind of heat that he's been getting from his GOP colleagues over forcing a vote to raise the debt ceiling -- forcing a procedural vote, that is.

Senator McCain tweeted this "Wall Street Journal" editorial titled, "The Minority Maker", calling it a must read. The piece criticized Cruz and called the vote needless drama for the party.

But Cruz has no regrets. In a radio interview with Mark Levin, he called out his critics.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: An awful lot of the Republicans wanted exactly what Barack Obama wanted, exactly what Nancy Pelosi wanted, what Harry Reid wanted, which was to raise the debt ceiling but they wanted to be able to tell what they view as their foolish, gullible constituents back home they didn't do it, and they're mad because by refusing to consent to that, they had to come out in open and admit what they are doing and nothing upsets them more.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's bring in friend of the show, Dan Balz, chief correspondent at "The Washington Post".

Dan, I wouldn't say that Senator Cruz doesn't have a point there.

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON POST: Well, he does have a point but the question is whether he has a strategy to make it effective. That's what we saw play out in the shutdown last fall where his approach led to the disastrous shutdown, which hurt the Republican Party, certainly for a time, and what happened this week when a dozen Republicans parted company with him and a lot of the other Republicans to make sure that there could be a vote on this. They all then voted against raising the debt ceiling, but they made sure it went through without any disruption.

TAPPER: So if I am Ted Cruz, he's a Tea Party Republican and thinks that a lot of the establishment Republican Party in the Senate is full of people who are secretly agreeing with Democrats and pretending otherwise, and I don't know that that's completely unfair.

BALZ: I don't know that it's completely fair either. There is some point to that. But I think that -- I mean, the Republican Party has staked its positions significantly in opposition to the president. There's no question about that.

TAPPER: Right. BALZ: This party is united in opposition to the president.

There are also practical realities about what you can and can't get done through the Congress to try to stoop those policies and that's where Senator Cruz and a lot of his parties have parted company.

TAPPER: So, he's trying to appeal to the Republicans and Senator McConnell who was supposed to vote for in favor of the debt ceiling although he voted against raising the debt ceiling. Same thing with John Cornyn in Texas, both of them have Tea Party challengers in the primaries. They are favored.

But how significant is the Tea Party base when it comes to Cornyn, McConnell and whoever Cruz may try to appeal if he runs for president?

BALZ: It doesn't look like Senator Cornyn has got a real, serious threat in his primary. Whether McConnell does or not, that's a matter of debate at this point. But one indication that McConnell may think that it's not as serious of a threat from his Tea Party challenger is what he did this week. I mean, if he were truly worried about that, he might have gone the other way.

TAPPER: Ask another Republican to -- they only needed five Republicans and ultimately they had 12.

BALZ: Right, they had more than enough.

TAPPER: Let's talk about President Obama and Vice President Biden spoke at the House Democrat retreat earlier today.

I want to play a little bit about what they had to say about the Republicans and the president speaking about the need for immigration reform.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe, frankly, that there are folks on the other side of the aisle who generally want to see this done but they are worried and they are scared about the political blowback.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There isn't a Republican Party. I wish there were. I wish there were was a Republican Party. I wish there was one person we could sit across the table from and make a deal and know that when we got up from the table, it was done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It's funny, it's like an analysis from President Obama, almost a sympathetic analysis, they fear blowback, and Biden giving -- serving up some red meat.

But one thing that was interesting that I didn't hear a lot about was 2014. Often these retreats are pep rallies. This is what we're going to do to help you get re-elected. There wasn't a lot of talk about that today.

Were you surprised?

BALZ: Well, not entirely. What we saw is only where the press was allowed in and cameras were allowed in. The president stayed for some Q&A and no doubt there were questions about 2014. He's in a somewhat difficult position.

For House Democrats, the best thing that the president can do is try to figure out a way to raise his overall approval rating. House Democrats, Democrats in general will do a lot better if he's at 47 percent or 48 percent approval by Labor Day than if he's at 41 or 42. So in a sense, he has to concentrate on doing things that raise his esteem.

In terms of the Senate elections, there are places where he's not going to be welcomed. I mean, there are four Democratic incumbents in red states where he's not going to necessarily be particularly welcomed.

TAPPER: No, he's an albatross on --

BALZ: Yes.

TAPPER: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana --

BALZ: And North Carolina.

TAPPER: -- and North Carolina. Yes.

BALZ: Yes. His approval ratings are way below his national average in most of those states. But that's not atypical in midterm elections. So, he's got to balance that.

I mean, I think one question is, how much will he be out raising money? Presumably a lot, which is the single most important thing he can do. The second is, to what extent does the White House become engaged in these elections in a way that they haven't been? I mean, it's only since the turn of the year that the White House, according to the Democrats, were working these races seemed to have kind of focused on them, decided they have to begin to coordinate in a more effective way and help develop a strategy.

TAPPER: Obviously, President Obama and President Bush are very different, and I'm not -- I don't want anyone to think I'm drawing a complete comparison. But it does feel a lot like 2006, just in terms of how popular the president is. We're talking about the same things now in terms of where can he go, where will he go, where will he be an asset, where will he be a hindrance to candidates? That we talked about President Bush, who had similar approval ratings at the time for a very different reason.

But do you think that he will be ultimately more help or hindrance for his party, the president?

BALZ: Well, I think it depends on -- TAPPER: It's obviously early.

BALZ: -- what people think about the White House plan and the White House seems to think that maybe a turning point on that. That they'll get a little better. They may be optimistic about whether some of these increased rollouts or sign-ups are going to affect public attitudes about it.

Those attitudes have been fixed pretty firmly for a long time. So, I don't see that turning around. There are some things he can do.

The difference, though, I think, Jake, between 2006 and today is that in 2006, you know, there were a lot of seats at play that the Democrats could win. The Republicans, in the intervening time, as we know, 163 seats in 2010, things didn't move much after that. There are not a lot of seats on the table one way or the other.

So, the Republicans could have a pretty good year this year. It would be historically, you know, what we would assume in the sixth year of a presidency that they would have a pretty good year. But whether there's a lot seats that they can pick up to significantly expand their majority I think is the big question.

TAPPER: All right. Dan Balz, thank you so much for dropping by. Have a great weekend. I assume you're taking your lovely bride out for a Valentines Day, you don't have to talk about it.

BALZ: I won't talk about it.

TAPPER: OK. Up next --

BALZ: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: -- as the NBA gets ready for all star weekend, Sir Charles goes one-on-one -- see what I did there? -- with the commander in chief. You'll see the first clip here.

Plus, a former football star and television commentator charged with rape after several women say he drugged and assaulted them. Details on the investigation and allegations coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The sports lead now. The round mound of rebound in the Oval Office. President Obama faced some questions from us at THE LEAD, and on NBA all star weekend, he's going one-on-one with Charles Barkley, fellow member of the Turner family.

And despite Sir Charles' best efforts, he was not able to pin the president down on the great debate for hoops' fans, King James or His Airness.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHARLES BARKLEY, NBA HALL OF FAMER: Watching LeBron James plays at the peak of his superpowers, it's an amazing debate. I never thought I would say, somebody like -- this guy might be as good as Michael Jordan.

OBAMA: You know LeBron, I know LeBron, when you're standing next to him and then you watch him close up, I've never seen somebody that size, that fast who can jump that high, who is that strong, who has that much basketball savvy all in one package. So, we don't yet know where he's going to be.

Now, I'm a Chicago guy and Mike will always be the guy for me just because that was a magical moment for the city and, you know, he was a champion. But Mike is now retired.

When you look at LeBron, he may be able to play at a high level for another 7, 8, 10 years. He's 29 years old. In terms of every aspect of the game, LeBron has a chance to be as good as anybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I couldn't get him to take a position on Biden versus Hillary and Sir Charles couldn't get him to do it there either. The complete interview will air during the preview of the all-star game 7:00 p.m. on our sister network TNT.

It was the scandal that turned the Miami Dolphins season into a soap opera. Offensive lineman Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team in October, accusing his fellow teammates of bullying him with racial and homophobic slurs. Now, an independent investigation into the incident finds that a lot of his accusations were true.

The report released earlier today accuses offensive lineman Richie Incognito, John Jerry, and Mike Pouncey of bullying and harassing Martin, along with another player and the team trainer. Martin was subjected to sexually suggested comments about his mother and his sister. The findings are based on interviews and private text messages that Martin sent to his family in the weeks leading up to his departure.

Incognito was suspended from the Dolphins back in November. The NFL has not said what possible punishments he and the other linemen could face in light of the new findings. But Richie Incognito's attorney just released a statement, slamming the report, calling the report "replete with errors." He says, quote, "The facts do not support a conclusion that Jonathan Martin's mental health, drug use or on-field performance issues were related to the treatment by his teammates," unquote.

A five-time pro bowler, Super Bowl champion, and one of the stars of the NFL Network as a primetime analyst is now being investigated as a possible serial rapist. Darren Sharper was charged in Los Angeles today for raping and drugging two women and he's being investigated for similar cases in three other states. Prosecutors say in both L.A. cases, Sharper met the women at a nightclub and lured them to his hotel room and then drugged and actually assaulted them. Sharper is facing similar sex assault investigations in Arizona, Louisiana, and Nevada.