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Extreme Turbulence; Interview With Senator John McCain; Severe Turbulence Leaves 5 People Hospitalized; College Football Players Push to Unionize

Aired February 18, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The world is burning at opposite ends as anti- government protests reach a fever pitch.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead, two capital cities, two different hemispheres, but the protests in Kiev and Caracas share more than death and chaos. They share a strong anti-government ideology. Our guest, Senator John McCain, member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, will weigh in as Americans were warned to stay away today.

The national lead. You are now free to be thrown about the cabin, a flight so rocky five people had to be hospitalized. I have heard of turbulence, but this is insane. What would you do if it happened on your next flight?

And the sports lead. There's no I in team, but there is one in union. Student athlete make their schools millions, but don't bank a dime of it. Have they found a way to change that?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We're going to begin with the world lead, of course. The images are stunning, the anger palpable, and the atmosphere, well, it's deadly. At this hour, two capital cities half a globe away from each other are in chaos.

On the left side of your screen is Kiev, Ukraine. On the right is Caracas, Venezuela. Two cities, opposite ends of the world, consumed by protest, which are linked through a common theme, fury at the socialist-leaning governments that control both countries.

So much happening in Caracas today, and we will get to that in a moment, but I want to stay with Kiev, where scenes like this one are happening in the streets.

At least nine people have been killed in protests today in Kiev, seven civilians and two police officers, according to the authorities. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev issued a warning to any Americans in the city telling them to stay inside as the violence escalates.

Let's get right to our own Phil Black on the phone in Kiev.

Phil, what are you seeing there? PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I am at the Independence Square right in the middle of Kiev.

And there are thousands of people here, and they are clearly preparing to try and hold this space. This is a square that has been occupied for something close to three months now. And it's the square that (INAUDIBLE) police intend to clear tonight.

As I say, thousands of people, what they are doing are passing forward essentially a human train, one person to another, hand to hand, finger to finger (INAUDIBLE) front line of some kind clearly focused on where they believe the -- they fear the police or the security forces will come from. They are building barricades (INAUDIBLE) all of it with the intention of slowing down any sort of police operation to clear this square out tonight.

TAPPER: And, Phil, these demonstrations have been happening in the Ukraine since November, when the ruler of Ukraine decided to not side with the E.U., but instead with Russia.

What exactly are the protesters demanding?

BLACK: Well, that's right.

That's what triggered all of this initially. As it has escalated over the months since, the demands of the opposition group have become a little more focused. What they want is for the president to give up many of his powers. They want the constitution to be revised (INAUDIBLE) and then what they want is a new government and early elections. So they want the opposition, the opposition party to band together to form a new temporary government, and then from there hold new presidential and parliamentary elections to try and end this political and increasingly violent (INAUDIBLE) but so far, there is no indication that the president is prepared to back down and (INAUDIBLE)

TAPPER: All right. Phil Black, thank you. Stay safe.

Turning now to Venezuela, where four people have already died in protests against the socialist government that have been raging for days, these protests. The opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who went to Kenyan College in Ohio and has an economic degree from Harvard, Lopez says he wants to awaken the Venezuelans to the corrupt justice and economic disaster left by 15 years of socialist rule.

Venezuela's government led by President Nicolas Maduro, the heir to Hugo Chavez, had issued an order for Lopez's arrest on charges of murder and conspiracy stemming from the protests. Today, Lopez turned himself in and was dragged away by the police.

CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul joins us live now from the streets of Caracas.

Karl, what are you seeing? Are protests still going on there?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, protests are still going on, Jake, but torrential tropical rain is now pouring down on the capital city and that is driving some protesters away from the demonstrations to go and seek cover.

But right now, thousands of anti-government protesters are still blocking the six-lane freeway that leads through the heart of Caracas. That is a key point. And they are holding that point still.

We have heard from the president, Nicolas Maduro, in the last few moments. He has said that so far today there have been no report of violent clashes, but if anything to go by over the past few days, it's usually as night falls that the most violent clashes do break out.

So we are on standby for the next few hours to see if we do see any repeat that after dark, Jake.

TAPPER: Karl, do we know where Lopez is now and what will happen to him?

PENHAUL: Well, as you described, Leopoldo Lopez himself in to the national guard and was dragged away.

We understand he was then transported to a military airport in the center of Caracas and helicopters hovered overhead. We thought that he was going to be transported out by helicopter. That may have been just a decoy, because, again, in the last few minutes, President Nicolas Maduro has said that Leopoldo Lopez has been driven by car to a prison outside of Caracas. He described that as a move to protect Leopoldo's own safety.

But, of course, it will also be a measure to take him away from Caracas and try and douse the protests in his favor -- Jake.

TAPPER: Karl Penhaul in Caracas, stay safe, my friend. Thank you.

For live reaction to these dramatically unfolding world events, I want to go to Republican Senator John McCain. He is joining me by phone from Arizona as we watch this fiery scene in the Ukraine.

Senator, let's start with the Ukraine, the city literally on fire. What's the latest that you know about what is happening there?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, I have talked to some friends who are there and it's escalating.

There's a couple of factors that have caused it to escalate. One of them is the Yanukovych, the president, to reform the government, which means changing the constitution so that some measure of the powers that are now centered in the presidency are moved to the parliament.

He has refused to do that. Second, apparently, Putin has announced additional funds will be coming in from the previous arrangement, a bailout for the Ukraine. People are very suspicious as to what Yanukovych did in return for that.

But, Jake, this is all about whether Ukraine is a European nation or part of Russia. This is what this is really all about. And the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want to be part of Europe. And when the E.U. collapsed -- by the way, part of the blame for that goes to the E.U. negotiators.

But, still, that's what this is really all about and the corruption and the oligarchs. You know that son the Yanukovych, the president, is a dentist. He's a billionaire. Now, dentistry is pretty rewarding, but -- and so the corruption, the lack of economic development and this deep concern on the part of most of the people in the Ukraine about having to be dependent on part of Russia, which Putin wants Ukraine in the worst possible way, because he believes it's part of the Russian empire.

And, by the way, I am very concerned about what Putin does after the Olympics are over.

TAPPER: Senator, let's turn to Venezuela, if we could.

The opposition leader there, Leopoldo Lopez, has been arrested. He has ties to the U.S. He went to school here, graduate school at Harvard. Is he being officially backed by the American government?

MCCAIN: I think the United States of America backs the people's right to express their will, to object to corruption, to this repression of the media, the arrest of political dissidents.

Chavez, I guess was able to get away with it, but we have seen a steady deterioration, despite their oil wealth, of the Venezuela economy. And the people are fed up with it. It's shortages. It's been all kinds of economic problems because of, again, socialism doesn't work.

It's not the same circumstances, though, that are driving the situation in the Ukraine. As you mentioned at the beginning, you're seeing two capitals on fire, but the motivations are somewhat different in -- as to what the people's ambitions are. And -- but a lot of it has to do -- begins with corruption and bad government.

TAPPER: I want to read a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry about the Ukraine, if we could go back to the Ukraine story, if you would.

Secretary Kerry says: "We condemn the use of force or violence by any party. We call on the government and protesters to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and to resolve political differences through high-level dialogue."

Obviously, these protests have been going on for months. They have obviously gotten -- been exacerbated today. The death toll, Senator, just since you and I have been talking, has officially gone up from nine to 14 in these Ukraine protests.

What should the U.S. be doing that we are not doing?

MCCAIN: The president should be working with Congress to prepare a set of sanctions against Ukraine that would be put into effect unless this comes to a halt.

It's been mentioned a couple of times by Secretary Kerry and others, but we have to have the gun loaded there, ready to fire that bullet if these continue. The second thing I think we have got to do, speak up for these people. You know, one of the greatness of America is speaking up for people that are trying to assert their rights.

The president of the United States, as far as I know, has not really said anything. And, if he has, it hasn't been very forcefully. And, then, third of all, we should work closely with the E.U. and with the IMF to get a package so that they can bail out their disaster of an economy, so that they will be ready to sign it and move forward with a new government.

And we have to side with the protesters and the power has to be dispersed from the hands of Yanukovych, who changed the constitution and put virtually all power in the hands of the president. And watch out for Vladimir Putin, because he will try to make mischief because he believes that Ukraine is part of Russia.


TAPPER: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about. I know you're not a fan of Vladimir Putin. How much do you think he has to do with what we're seeing in the streets of Kiev today?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think that saying that he's renewing the loans to the Ukraine, obviously, he's not a man known for his generosity.

We really need to know what was behind that. But, most of all, I think we need to understand that Vladimir Putin really is committed to this whole idea of the Russian empire, or the Russian near, abroad.

And I don't know exactly what he will do, but I would -- nothing would surprise me. And I think we ought to tell Putin that interference in a way that -- in the ways that he might do it would be totally unacceptable to the United States.

TAPPER: Senator John McCain on the phone from Arizona, thank you so much, sir. We appreciate it.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up on our national lead, it can cause a plane to drop 1,000 feet just like that, and the pilot never sees it coming. We will explain how mountain wave turbulence just landed five airline passengers in the hospital.

And in our political lead, another week, another name from Clinton scandals past -- conservatives media now talking to Kathleen Willey, who once claimed President Clinton groped her when she was a White House aide. Decades later, she's accusing Hillary Clinton of waging a war on women.


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

On the national lead -- one second, you're on an airplane, sipping a soda, leafing through a well-worn SkyMall catalogue. And the next, you're terrified, being tossed around like a sock in a clothes dryer for what feels like an eternity. That's how passengers are describing their experience on a United Airlines flight headed from Denver to Billings, Montana.


BILL DAHLIN, PASSENGER: There was a lot of screaming and a lot of hollering and things like that.

CARRIE MULLINS, PASSENGER: In a split second, we were tilting to the far right and plunging. It was just instantaneous. Everything that everybody had in their hands were flying through the air. People were screaming. There was a lady behind me that was yelling, "My baby, my baby."


TAPPER: Five people had to be taken to the hospital after the plane hit what is being described as, quote, "mountain wave turbulence." Only one remains in the hospital.

Mountain wave turbulence can happen even when skies are clear, like they were during this flight. It's basically when wind blows across the top of a mountain, creating atmospheric waves. Aviation experts say it can cause planes to rise or fall about 1,000 feet.

Joining me now to discuss this is Mark Weiss. He's retired captain with American Airlines and he's currently the civil aviation team lead for the Spectrum Group.

Mark, United Airlines said this turbulence took the pilot and flight crew off guard. Is that normal?

MARK WEISS, CIVIL AVIATION TEAM LEAD, THE SPECTRUM GROUP: Oftentimes it happens that way. I mean, you anticipate particularly in mountainous terrain, where they were, you can anticipate that there's a potential for turbulence going through that mountain area. But, you know, oftentimes what happens is that the air will be still and you will get that turbu (ph) coming off of the mountains that will cause a disruption of air flow.

TAPPER: What people may not realize who are flying, is that there are four different types of turbulence -- light, which is what some of us experience at one time or another, all the way to the extreme. This has been described as a severe turbulent event.

Describe what that is, and how long it might last.

WEISS: It can last for a few seconds. It can last a bit longer. But people are jolted out of their seats, you may lose control of the aircraft for a couple of seconds.

And there are different definitions for what the extreme is and that has longer time where the aircraft is not in control. So, this meant that the airplane was out of control for just a couple of seconds but you're able to regain control of the aircraft and people are able to get back into their seats but you've got that experience feeling, as you said before, like you've been through a clothes dryer.

TAPPER: And five people hospitalized. We've heard one woman lost hold of her baby, who she was holding. How severe can the injuries be from something like this?

WEISS: Well, if you think about it -- I mean, you've got no control. You know, when they tell you in an airplane, keep your seats on even if the seat belt sign is off.

TAPPER: They're not joking.

WEISS: They're not kidding. I mean, there's a reason for it. It can be very severe. I personally had a friend in a severe turbulence incident who actually hit the ceiling on an airplane, came down and landed on an arm rest and had a retina detached in one of her eyes.

TAPPER: Oh my God.

WEISS: So, it can be very serious.

TAPPER: Let's switch gears to a horrifying flight incident, this one happened onboard an Ethiopian airlines flight headed to Italy when one of the pilots left the cockpit, the co-pilot attempted to hijack the plane. Listen.


TAPPER: This is the pilot was hoping to get asylum because he reportedly felt threatened in his own country, all the passengers got off the plane safely. The pilot was arrested.

But, Mark, my question for you is, what kind of screening is in place for pilots to prevent something like this from happening. Do we have -- I know this is an Ethiopian airline, but are there screenings done to make sure that pilots are not under any sort of duress, that might cause something like this to happen?

WEISS: Well, let's look at it from a couple of different perspectives. The first thing is, this was not a terrorist event.


WEISS: But most people think that anytime something happens on an airplane, that's where your mind goes.

This was somebody who may have been under a political situation. And it could have had a component of mental illness along with that. In the United States, when you're getting the job with an airline, you're vetted, you're screened. You're going through these psychological exams all the time.

In other countries, it works differently and you don't necessarily have the same level of screening that you would in the United States. TAPPER: And, in fact, a lot of these other countries have airlines that fly to the United States, Ethiopia Air flies to the United States.

Mark Weiss, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up, first, it was the iPod, then came the iPhone, then came the iPad. Apple has already changed the way we live. But will the company's next innovation actually save our lives?

And in the sports lead, college football players put their bodies in harm's way to make their schools billions of dollars. But should student athletes be considered employees or just students? That's next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The sports lead now. College football players collectively earn billions of dollars for their colleges and universities. They work long hours, including weekend and holidays. But the only paycheck they see is their scholarship money.

So, what do you do when you're feeling undervalued and underpaid? Well, you form a union. Northwestern University football players, with the help of a team of lawyers, went before the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago today. They want to radically change the way college athletes are treated and they think unionizing might be the key to changing a century-old system.

CNN's Sara Ganim has the details.


SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was Jeff Yarbrough's childhood dream to play football.


GANIM: But it could cause him a lifetime of pain.

(on camera): You were one of the fastest guys in high school but now you can't run?

YARBROUGH: I can't run. And that's kind of the -- I try not to think about it as much because the more I think about it, I definitely can get a little depressed.

GANIM (voice-over): He fractured his legs while playing and now has medal rods in both. He can't afford the surgery to have them removed because there's no financial help for former college athletes, a big burden for someone with chronic injuries like his.

(on camera): This would cost a significant amount of money if you were to take this out? YARBROUGH: They estimated over $20,000, between $20,000 and $30,000 to take it out.

GANIM: And that would all be on you?

YARBROUGH: All on me, yes.

GANIM: You would have to pay for that?

YARBROUGH: Yes, all on me.

GANIM: Medical coverage is just the beginning of the criticisms against the NCAA and how they treat their college athletes, but never before have current players been so vocal in standing up for themselves. That is, until now. Last month, members of the current Northwestern football team got together and decided that they are going to try something, something that could revolutionize the way the NCAA works.

KAIN COLTER, FORMER NORTHWESTERN QUARTERBACK: I would like to thank Northwestern --

GANIM (voice-over): They are trying to form a union, an incredibly bold move, given the tight control over athletes in the multibillion dollar industry of college sports.

COLTER: Student athletes don't have a voice.

GANIM: The idea came from former Northwestern quarterback Cane Colter. Ironically, he got it during a college course. Almost all of his teammates back him.

COLTER: The current model resembles a dictatorship.

RAMOGI HUMA, NATIONAL COLLEGE PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: These guys at Northwestern, I think they are an inspiration.

GANIM: Ramogi Huma is the head of the National College Players Association. The athletes he's courted have organized the all-players united wrist band campaign last season and they have been pushing for reform ever since. Colter came to him with this idea. Now, they are taking their fights before the National Labor Relations Board.

HUMA: Comprehensive reform will always be elusive unless players have a seat at the table. Just like the NFL. Just like the NBA.

GANIM: But the team is up against their own university, which has applauded their leadership but said, quote, "student athletes are not employees but students", and the NCAA added that, quote, "their participation in college sports is voluntary."

While there's growing public support for NCAA reform, some question whether this is the right approach.

RICHARD EPSTEIN, LABOR LAW PROFESSOR: I think it's just very risky.

GANIM: Law professor Richard Epstein is no fan of the NCAA. He's called it a cartel. But he doesn't think a union is the solution.

EPSTEIN: Generally speaking, putting a union opposite an industry cartel creates more instability than it eliminates.

GANIM: But Yarborough says he's never been more proud to be a Wildcat than the day those players stepped up and essentially said "enough".

YARBROUGH: I didn't think the rest of my life at 18 or 19. Again, I just thought about playing on Saturdays. The fans, they just see Saturday. They see football on Saturdays.