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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Mitch McConnell in Trouble?; Is West Virginia Water Safe?; Syrian Town Scarred by Islamic Group; U.S. & Syria Point Fingers at Each Other

Aired February 17, 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: When George Washington, the father of our country, reflected on his legacy, surely he thought, some people will get great tire deals on my birthday.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The politics lead, forget bingeing on "House of Cards," at least for the moment, because today's juiciest political drama is not here in Washington. It's in Kentucky. The state's two senators who have had their differences are putting those differences aside, or at least pretending to, as one of them is fighting for his political life. If the top Republican in the Senate is not safe this year, well, then who is?

The national lead, officials have assured time and time again that the water in West Virginia is safe to drink after a nasty chemical spilled into the supply. But, today, yet another alarming sign forced an elementary school there to shut down. Is the water safe or not, people?

And the sports lead, it's the interview that everyone is talking about. NBC asks and asks and asks and asks Bode Miller about his brother who just died a few months ago until finally the skier broke down in tears. Did NBC go too far?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. And a happy George Washington's birthday to you.

We begin with the politics lead. Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs this year, and Republicans feel good about their chances, especially in states that went for Mitt Romney in 2012, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina, but before Republicans can face off against any vulnerable Democrats, they are going to have to get through their own primaries, and in these contests, we do see a battle going on for the soul of the Republican Party, as establishment incumbents try to fend off Tea Party challengers.

Perhaps nowhere is that fight more vicious than in the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, where the Senate's own Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is facing a Tea Party candidate, Matt Bevin. Today, the United Kentucky Tea Party, citing McConnell's vote last week to proceed to a vote on raising the debt ceiling, well, they called for McConnell to drop out of the race so, they say, conservatives can rally around Bevin. Now, McConnell is not going to do that. He was elected to the Senate 30 years ago this year. And, today, he was trying to shore up some Tea Party support by appearing with his fellow Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, a star of the Tea Party.

And McConnell took every opportunity to mention Mr. Paul.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I'm pleased to be here with colleague, Senator Paul. Under Senator Paul's bill, which I'm glad to be a co-sponsor of. We have Senator Paul's very creative idea. Senator Paul's Economic Freedom Zones Act. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm getting the feeling that Rand Paul was there.

You might recall when Rand Paul ran for Senate four years ago, well, McConnell, he endorsed Paul's opponents in the Republican primary. It was only after Paul won that primary that McConnell threw his support behind him. But now, with McConnell facing a potentially bruising primary of his own, Paul has endorsed him, even though Paul might actually be more attuned to McConnell's challenger's Tea Party views.

Now, when Rand Paul spoke to Glenn Beck, he explained his reasoning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You know, things are complicated with regard to endorsements, but I would say, one, because he asked me, and, two, because he asked me when he did not have an opponent and it wasn't a choice at that time, but, three, also I am somebody who believes in bringing people together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Things are complicated, Rand Paul said. It's complicated, perhaps more fitting for a Facebook relationship status update than an endorsement.

Joining me now is Joe Arnold, political editor at our affiliate WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky.

Thanks so much for being here.

Does McConnell need Rand Paul to vouch for his credentials?

JOE ARNOLD, POLITICAL EDITOR, WHAS: There's no question that Mitch McConnell has been Rand Paul as an essential player here in Kentucky after the 2010 race.

Don't forget, Mitch McConnell originally had endorsed Rand Paul's opponent back in the primary then. But since then, they have merged a mutually beneficial relationship here, just two years ago, Rand Paul vouching for Mitch McConnell at a major Tea Party rally at the state capital. There's no question that McConnell sees Rand Paul as an essential part of his campaign.

TAPPER: Now, the United Kentucky Tea Party today demanded that McConnell drop out of the race. I know that's not going to happen, but how strong is that sentiment and how weak is McConnell?

ARNOLD: Well, of course, we will have to find out once the primary comes.

Our polls here have shown that McConnell has a healthy sizable lead against Matt Bevin, the global businessman, the investor who's challenging him here. However, McConnell is taking nothing for granted in the process.

I think anyone -- most observers here would be shocked if McConnell in fact would lose that primary. The bigger picture here, of course, and the Grimes, Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign has already said that this is part of their overall game strategy, is that Matt Bevin is helping them weaken McConnell for the bigger fight in the fall.

TAPPER: You were campaigning with -- or not -- you were covering the campaign of Alison Grimes today as she was out in the field. Can a Democrat win in Kentucky?

JOE ARNOLD: There's no question about that.

Keep in mind, Kentucky has a Democratic governor. We have a Democratic Statehouse right now. The state certainly has been trending more conservative and more Republican. Mitch McConnell is the godfather of the Republican -- modern Republican Party here in Kentucky.

And he's very vulnerable. This is a very interesting candidate here in Alison Grimes, who is someone is much more difficult to beat up on as far as negative advertising. She's 35 years old and she has only been in office for two years. As a result, some of the recent candidates in recent pasts against McConnell have had a much longer life and a longer record to beat up on.

But there's no question about her unknown status here is going to be very fertile ground for McConnell's famous campaign operation to define here between now and November.

TAPPER: Joe Arnold from affiliate WHAS, thank you so much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: So let's talk about how complicated things are for Republicans in New York right now.

Let's bring in Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post," and Ross Douthat, CNN political commentator and columnist for "The New York Times."

Ross, this does seem to be something of a microcosm for the fight that the Republicans have been having for years now. It doesn't look like Matt Bevin is close to defeating McConnell yet. He's way behind him in polls, but in some other polls he's closer and in other polls he does better against the Democrat than McConnell does.

ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think Kentucky -- I think this race is less of a microcosm in a certainly way of where the Republicans are right now than it would have been two years ago or back in the 2010 cycle.

I think it's more of a unique case where you have an unusually strong potential Democratic challenger. You have McConnell, a high-profile figure, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate and so on. But there are not actually as many races across the country that are likely to shape up as sort of Tea Party challengers toppling old bulls of the Republican Party this time around.

TAPPER: You don't Steve Stockman in Texas is --

(CROSSTALK)

DOUTHAT: Well, look, right, We are paying a lot of attention right now to Bevin, who is a guy who is 25 points down in the polls.

And Stockman is getting a little attention as sort of a curiosity and a joke.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: McConnell's people are worried about Bevin. It's not just people in the media. McConnell's people are not happy about this.

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": They are foolish if they are not worried about it, because if you look at the last couple of cycles, exactly that sort of thing has happened.

A guy has been way down and then --

TAPPER: Bennett, Lugar.

MILBANK: Right. It looks as if -- as has said been said before -- the Tea Party fever has broken here.

So the dynamic is still there that somebody could rise up, but the Tea Party doesn't seem to have the energy they did. We also see it in Texas with Steve Stockman and John Cornyn. And we see it here in the capital with bill after bill now we're seeing a much more marginalized Tea Party set. They're not as afraid as the primary challenge as they used to be.

DOUTHAT: In a sense, although they are also -- they're more marginal because in a sense they have gone more mainstream, right?

McConnell is standing -- that is the bigger story in a sense here. You played the clip of McConnell citing my good friend Rand Paul over and over again, and clearly the energy in the party in certain ways is with the previous Tea Party wave, right, figures like Cruz, Paul, Mike Lee, who has emerged as kind of the policy guy for sort of potential Republican reformers, and, to a certain extent, Marco Rubio.

(CROSSTALK)

DOUTHAT: That's a shift, but it's not -- but now in terms of the primaries, we're into the sort of, yes, Steve Stockman --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But I want to say that overall the Republicans feel good about the odds of taking the Senate back.

MILBANK: Oh, sure, sure. I think they have found a way to co-opt that Tea Party energy, which is why it's less of a threat, while still voting policy wise in more of a centrist direction.

But, yes, the reason the Republicans are looking strong, certainly in the House and even likely in the Senate now, is because they have been somewhat more unified, but more than that because of the Democrats' weakness.

DOUTHAT: And McConnell's weak polling against Grimes in is an outlier.

If you look overall, Republicans in a lot of purplish states are polling very well in Senate races. The underlying factor here is as long as the president's approval rating is in the low 40s, Republicans should be able to win the Senate. Historically, out-party Senate votes track very well with presidential approval ratings. That may change, but right now that's the more important factor.

TAPPER: Republicans also feel good because over the weekend a very conservative candidate who was going to run in Iowa opted not to run, making that race more competitive.

MILBANK: If you think about it, if it weren't for a lot of these challengers who knock off establishment front-runner Republicans, the Republicans would already control the Senate.

There are five or six of these already. The fact that they're not in control of the Senate is because they have had the Christine O'Donnell and other seats like that that they should have. In Indiana, they should have it. In Colorado, they should have had these seats, and lost it because they didn't go with the mainstream candidate. They seem to be learning that lesson now.

TAPPER: All right, Ross Douthat, Dana Milbank, thank you so much. We appreciate it. Good to see you guys.

Coming up on THE LEAD, it's a radical Islamist group too extreme for even al Qaeda. And a rare new video proves that their brutality knows no bounds. We will show you some of the shocking exclusive footage from Syria's war within a war.

Plus, at the Winter Olympics, it's a reporter accused of being cold as ice. Did her interview with an American skier go too far?

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now, it's time for the world lead.

Talks to end the war inside Syria are broken into pieces and it's not clear whether they can be glued back together again. While the world has watched, 140,000 people have been killed in the fighting between the Syrian regime and rebels in the last three years. For months, reports have emerged from Northern Syria about atrocities carried out by a rebel group of al Qaeda-inspired extremists. The group is known as "ISIS" -- the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It's been battling the Syrian government, as well as battling other rebel groups, some of which are moderate and supported by the West.

ISIS wants to impose a fundamentalist version of Islam on people under its control. It's extremely dangerous to report from areas under ISIS control.

But now as the group is being forced out of certain areas, our own Arwa Damon and her team have gone in to see the devastation in ISIS' wake. And we should warn you, some of the images in this exclusive report -- well, they are very disturbing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This grave has been dug up before. The bodies -- identified, reburied in the same spot. In video filmed at the time, gruesome images of the corpses of four men.

It's among many mass graves rebel fighters unearthed after they recapture the town of Adana, from radical fighters who once were their allies.

Now, weeks later, a family hopes for closure.

"We found a shoe and a foot and a jacket", (INAUDIBLE) says. She's with her neighbor, Mohammed Ismayen (ph). It's his two younger brothers that are missing. One might be here.

"He just went out to tomatoes and sugar," Mohammed recalls, still disbelieving. And his wife wanted socks for their kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the jacket.

DAMON: "It's the same jacket," Mohammed says. The site is next to a former prison run by is. Its walls lined with bullet holes. Some from clashes, others we are told from executions.

Mass ISIS fighters as seen in this rare video posted to YouTube use fear to rule. Anyone caught filming them killed.

(on camera): This was the main ISIS checkpoint leading into Adana. And as part of their terror tactics, eyewitnesses were telling us that they would leave some of the bodies of people they executed lining at the checkpoint, so that every single car coming through would be forced to slow down and could not ignore that brutal message.

(voice-over): ISIS is a group so merciless that even al Qaeda has distanced itself from it.

(on camera): Abu Jamal is telling us that ISIS had beheaded one of the main key commanders here and they came in early in the morning when the market was really busy and placed his head on top of the garbage heap. It was in that very same spot. And they turned around and told everybody that that would be the fate of anyone who dare to speak out against them.

(voice-over): Their harsh, intolerable rule caused other Islamist and moderate rebel groups to launch an offensive against them earlier this year.

"So we had to leave the fronts with the regime," Abu Jamal says. "And fall back to fight ISIS, to liberate the already liberated areas another time."

But ISIS still looms large in Syria, consolidating its forces and posing its reign of terror. In this video filmed after the day we met Mohammed, he realizes it's not two but three of his brothers that were murdered by is. He thought one of them was in jail.

Arwa Damon, Adana, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: As we mentioned, the Syria peace talks ended on a sour note in Geneva, over the weekend, with no progress, plenty of finger pointing. Syria's foreign minister accused U.S. of creating a, quote, "negative climate for the talks."

But Secretary of State Kerry laid it all on the regime of Bashar al- Assad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: They have refused to open up one moment of discussion legitimately about a transition government and it is very clear that Bashar al-Assad is continuing to try to win this in the battlefield rather than to come to the negotiating table in good faith.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This isn't, of course, just about some minor fighting far away and out of sight. The United Nation says there are nearly 2.5 millions Syrian refugees and although the U.N. stop updating the death toll in Syria, a pro-opposition group says more than 7,000 children have died. CNN cannot independently confirm those numbers.

So, let's bring in Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, Women and Foreign Policy Program, and our own Jim Sciutto, CNN's chief national security correspondent.

I mean, let's just start, Gayle, with the reaction to Arwa's piece. It's just devastating. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, SENIOR FELLOW, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It is. It's incredible and it's incredible reporting. And this was always the fear, that inaction would actually lead to Syria today becoming 1980s Afghanistan on the Mediterranean, where foreign fighters would come and convene and get trained and go back and then, you know, use what they learned. And I think, you know, the children are the ones who pay the price. You have 1.1 million children refugees and about half of those, think of three-quarters to half are under the age of 12.

TAPPER: And we're seeing this huge destabilizing impact on the rest of the region. You saw President Obama over the weekend meeting with the king of Jordan.

Jim, John Kerry not only criticized Assad, he criticized Russia. He used the term "enabling". And Russia's foreign minister responded by saying, quote, "Russia is always being urged to make more of an effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. When we hear that Russia must take some steps, it's necessary to remember one simple truth: We have done everything we promised."

They don't seem to actually want to stop.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: This is the trouble with policy that has bet peace on urging the Russians and Syrians to be good actors in this process, right? You had some success with the chemical weapons deal in getting those sides to the table, you know, a deal to eliminate those weapons. But arguably, that was in both sides interest because it kept the Assad regime in power and saved them from military airstrikes from the U.S.

It's a different situation now. Assad feels emboldened. He thinks he can survive. The Russian it seems thinks he can survive as well. And when you have a policy that's dependent on them doing things that you want them to do that they don't want to do, that's a real problem. You really wonder -- you have to wonder where the U.S. leverage is, both with Damascus and with Moscow.

TAPPER: And, Gayle, I want to bring in. I want to show this tweet. I believe it was Arwa who tweeted it. It was a picture of U.N. staff four-year-old Syrian refugee walking in the desert by himself, separated from his family. The child was, thankfully, finally reunited with his family.

You've talked to aide workers on the ground there. How bad is it there?

LEMMON: It's epic. I mean, if you think about it, aide workers can come nowhere near meeting the demands of the people on the ground. You now have one in four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. It is just swamping anything --

TAPPER: Twenty-five percent of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee?

LEMMON: Yes. So, they have now the equivalent of 25 percent of the population. And so, you think what that means for the region. And you have all those children who are out of school -- 80 percent of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children out of school. What does that mean for the generation?

You know, you've had Arne Duncan on before and he talks about the connection between undereducated children and violence, and this is definitely something that is not going away. And there's no way right now for this humanitarian community to meet it. The U.N. gained only 60 percent of meeting its budget request for last year for the Syrian refugees. Nobody knows where that money is going to come from.

TAPPER: Jim, when I interviewed Secretary Kerry a few weeks ago, it was -- he seemed to be hinting that he wanted to do more and we know from last year's debate that he wanted more of a muscular intervention. What are the administration's options to do this? President Obama and others, what can they do?

SCIUTTO: I agree with you because I've heard similar signals from Secretary Kerry as well. I mean, the trouble is the other options on the table are options that have been eliminated, right, or has been very reluctant to act on. If you're talking about arming, retraining the rebels, covert operations, military air strikes, this kind of thing. So, that's a problem. Those involve risks which the administration to this point has not been willing to take, whether it's risks to American lives or risks that some of those weapons get in the wrong hands.

Trouble is those weapons are already in there. You have dozens of actors that are sending arms to the opposition. "The Wall Street Journal" report last week that the Saudis are going to send shoulder fire missiles.

But -- so, what are you left with? The administration gave us a background briefing on Friday and they are talking about a U.N. resolution, but even they admit that that resolution will not have sanctions or military action attached to it.

So, where is the teeth? Who is going to follow that resolution?

TAPPER: A tragic story and it looks like it's only going to continue to get more tragic.

Gayle, Jim, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

In other world news, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats over the weekend, accusing them of conspiring against this government. According to a U.S. official, these American consular officials were talking to students at a local university about studying abroad and the State Department received a note saying they were speaking to students without the Venezuela government's permission.

The timing is a bit odd, of course. And Secretary Kerry over the weekend released a statement saying he was, quote, "deeply concerned" about the protests in Venezuela, which were organized by students over high inflation and rising crime rates. The State Department released a statement calling the accusations that the U.S. was helping to organize these protests, quote, "baseless and false." For those of you at home keeping score, eight U.S. diplomats have been expelled by the Maduro government since he took office last year.

Coming up on THE LEAD, it's been 39 days since chemicals were spilled into a West Virginia river but students got sent home today after the distinctive smell reappeared. So, when will the water finally be safe to drink?

Plus, get your brackets ready. No, it's not March madness and it's only a field of 46. Who is the best of the first ladies? That's next on THE LEAD.

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