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Cruz on Nugent; Chaos Continues in Kiev; Chris Christie Faces Public in Town Hall; Debate Over the Confederate Flag

Aired February 20, 2014 - 11:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Bloodbath in Ukraine, the deadliest day the nation has seen in years, at least 100 people killed, as the United States tiptoes towards this international crisis.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CO-ANCHOR: The Confederate flag, stirring up another battle in Georgia, this time because it's featured on a new state-approved specialty license plate.

We're going to take a look at the clash between those who say the flag honors Southern heritage and those who see it as a symbol of racial oppression.

BERMAN: It's worth $19 billion, $19 billion and I'd never even heard of it.

What is this WhatsApp, and why did Facebook want it so badly and why this is such huge news that could change the way you communicate?

Hello, everyone, I'm John Berman.

PEREIRA: And I'm Michaela Pereira. Those stories and more @ THIS HOUR.

Shots fly in Kiev's Independence Square, blood flowing, breaking a very, very short true, U.S. officials today worry that the violence will get even worse.

We're getting reports of at least a hundred people killed today alone, hundreds more injured in the worst outbreak of violence since protesters camping out in square three months ago.

It's unclear at this point what prompted the new gunfire. CNN crews tell us protesters were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police as they were withdrawing.

Protesters are angry about Ukraine's president rejecting a trade pact and closer ties with the European Union, instead choosing to instead rather accept raid aid from Russia.

We're going to bring you a live report from Kiev in just a moment.

BERMAN: In New Jersey, a big, big day for Governor Chris Christie, he is just minutes away now from his first town hall since the bridge scandal broke. The subject is supposed to be Sandy relief, but this meeting is open to the public, so you never know. It could be a free-for-all. There are already protests outside.

In the past, his town meetings have been high-drama, high-energy events where the governor goes toe-to-toe with voters, sometimes, in fact, in their face.

It will be awfully interesting to see how he acts and what he does today.

PEREIRA: Yeah, which Chris Christie will come out in front of us today?

Homeland Security also warning airlines of possible attempts to hide bombs in shoes, in cosmetics and in liquids. They fear that terrorists may be working on new bomb designs.

And this is new, unrelated to that warning about explosives, remember just before the Olympics, hidden in cosmetics and toothpaste on flights to Russia.

BERMAN: We also have a CNN exclusive to tell you about. Republican Senator Ted Cruz saying he does not agree with rocker Ted Nugent's explosive comments calling President Obama a "sub-human mongrel."

But the Texas lawmaker would not rule out campaigning with Ted Nugent in the future.

Senator Cruz spoke in an exclusive interview with our Dana Bash.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's a reason why I played that for you and the reason why it's an issue is because this week here in Texas, as I mentioned, he was invited to campaign with the man who may be your next governor in your party.

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Those sentiments there, of course, I don't agree with him. You've never heard me say such a thing nor would I.

I will note there's a reason people listen to Ted Nugent, which is that he has been fighting passionately for Second Amendment rights.

BASH: Would you campaign with ted Nugent?

CRUZ: I haven't yet, and I'm going to avoid engaging in hypotheticals.


BERMAN: The man Dana mentioned who is running for governor of Texas is the state's attorney general, Greg Abbott. He was criticized by a lot of people for inviting Ted Nugent to campaign with him in Texas this week. PEREIRA: We're keeping an eye on severe weather moving. It seems like we've been saying this, over and over, but the fact is tornados are actually possible today from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf Coast.

The areas of greatest concern's right there on your map. We're talking Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.

And, sadly, once that front moves through, more freezing winter weather is coming right behind it.

Back to our top story, gunfire shatters a fragile truce in Ukraine, leaving protesters' bodies in Independence Square. There are reports of at least a hundred dead.

This is a tug of war between East and West, and it's threatening to send Ukraine into civil war.

Protesters want Ukraine to ally more with the European Union and not Russia.

BERMAN: There are really developments now, minute by minute, there.

European leaders are discussing possible sanctions against Ukraine for what they call heavy-handedness against the protesters.

The United States, watching this one very closely, very carefully, one official saying that the Ukraine, the crackdown, could get more severe any time. That's because the Ukraine, they say, is under pressure from Russia.

We also understand just in the last few minutes we've been learning that Ukrainian officials say that several police have been killed. At least 25 have been injured.

And there could be an uniformed police officer, more than one, in fact, being held hostage right now.

Joining us now from Kiev's Independence Square is our Nick Paton Walsh. Also joined right now by Ambassador Nick Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He joins us from Harvard in Massachusetts.

First, Nick Paton Walsh, you are in Kiev. You've been watching what's going on in the streets. Give us a sense of what is happening right now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As we stand now, dark has finally fallen, and we have, down the road here to my left, where the clashes with police happened, at the far end, substantial barricades, a lot of protesters digging in there, tires set on fire, the police much further down the road.

The first line of defense is there, then another one down there and then eventually into the square.

They've been cleaning up the square after the clashes of the past couple of days, trying to maintain some sense of control there, and, of course, waiting for police to respond in some way.

Police had pushed in in the last two days to retake a lot of the square. So, the last -- this morning's activity where all those people died was actually -- it was after the protesters moving towards police lines.

So, we're hearing from medical officials working with protesters that possibly a hundred people have died. We haven't seen those bodies ourselves, and that is a large jump from the figure of 20 we heard before.

But that figure alone, widely disseminated, is going to inflame an awful lot of anger around here as well.

What we saw last night -- this morning was clashes and exchanges of gunfire, fire towards protesters from the area where police were standing.

I also spoke to one protester carrying a shotgun. He said that he'd fired that back towards police when he says people near him were shot upon by a police sniper. So, exchanges of live fire here, dozens, certainly, having lost their lives.

You also mentioned that 67 police, according to the interior ministry, have been taken hostage. We're not exactly clear about that.

There have been a lot of police officers, it seems, appearing on television, saying they've joined protesters.

We don't know where these 67 are or who they are, but, again, that kind of strong statement from the police suggesting maybe there could be a crackdown further head.


PEREIRA: OK, well, that is the scene where Nick Paton Walsh is on the ground.

Let's get some context. Ambassador Burns, let's talk about this. We mentioned in the intro that this is sort of seen as a battle of East and West.

We know the economy of Ukraine is in bad shape, trying to figure who to ally with, the E.U or Moscow.

Ukraine's president, Victor Yanukovych, chose Mexico. They accepted a $15 billion Russian bailout instead of a wide-ranging trade deal with the E.U.

And that's when protesters flooded the square back in November.

Give us a sense of why they are so passionate, those protesters? They are so passionate they're putting their lives on the line for this.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: You're absolutely right. This is nothing short of catastrophic for Ukraine. What we're witnessing and watching is a badly divided society. Part of Ukraine, particular western Ukraine, young people, they want jobs and investment in their economy.

There's another part of Ukraine, the industrialized part of Ukraine, Russian speakers that see their future with Russia.

You see a country split in the middle. You don't see effective leadership from Yanukovych. Attacks were brutal and unnecessary.

You also don't see a mature, measured attitude from Moscow. What you see is power politics, intimidation and politics of division.

I think those are as some of the possible reasons we're witnessing this.

I do think the United States has acted the right way, to say in President Barack Obama's statement in particular last night, there needs to be a ceasefire, a period of calm so people of Ukraine can work through really tough issues about their future.

BERMAN: Ambassador, the president also said this is not a type of Cold War chess match.

Let's throw out the term "Cold War." It does seem like that there's some sort of international power struggle here, Vladimir Putin very much flexing muscles, influencing what's happening in Ukraine.

A lot of people thought he muscled the president of Ukraine at the Olympics' opening ceremony right now.

So, is there any way for the U.S. now to take any kind of action, hard action, soft action, sanctions, statements that could have any effect about what's going on in the streets right now in Kiev?

BURNS: I think the role for the United States is to try to stand above the fray a little and argue with the government of Ukraine not to use force in the streets of Kiev, and to establish some kind of durable ceasefire, and then a political transition process where the protesters, the people of western Ukraine can have a discussion with the leaders more calm about the future.

And I think that's what President Barack Obama was trying to say, that the violence is ruining everything. And, obviously it was a thinly veiled reference in what he said, what President Barack Obama said last night, to the Russians.

The Russians do see this in Cold War terms, a zero-sum mentality. They are threatened by a Ukraine that would have tighter economic relations with the European Union, but that's what's best for the future of people from Ukraine.

So I think what's required is leadership. You're seeing leadership from the European Union and the United States. You're not seeing it from Yanukovych and certainly not from Vladimir Putin. PEREIRA: Ambassador Nick Burns, Nick Paton Walsh in Kiev, we thank you both for your input and your report there, Nick. We're going to check with you a little later.

Ambassador Burns, thanks so much for the context.

A lot of people went to bed thinking that maybe a truce had been reached, and then things literally exploded over there.

BERMAN: At least a hundred dead, we're hearing now, 70 hostages, police hostages, being held right now.

PEREIRA: Hundred injured.

BERMAN: What the ambassador said is what is needed is a dispassionate conversation about the future.

There is nothing dispassionate about what's happening in the streets of Kiev right now.

PEREIRA: Let's take a short break here @ THIS HOUR.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, famous for his bare-knuckle political brawls with voters, is holding his first town meeting since that "Bridge-gate" scandal broke.

Who's going to come out? Is he going to come out swinging? Is it going to be a more calm Chris Christie? We'll have to wait and see.


PEREIRA: Governor Chris Christie, microphone in hand, taking questions from New Jersey voters at this hour. First time he's done this since the George Washington Bridge scandal broke.

BERMAN: You're looking at live pictures now. You can see the back of the governor right there. This town hall meeting is in Port Monmouth; it's supposed to be about federal money rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. He opened with a statement about the importance of this relief and talked about accomplishments of his administration, in his words, in dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. Of course, the governor will get to take questions here. And the big question is, will the whole George Washington Bridge lane closure come up?

PEREIRA: If you had to put money on it, you'd probably say yes.

BERMAN: Absolutely.

PEREIRA: Christie for his part has denied knowing about the gridlock until after the fact. And he said he knew nothing about it allegedly being payback for a mayor who did not support him.

Chris Frates, from CNN Investigations, joins us at this hour along with our Mark Preston.

BERMAN: We also have Chris Oprison; he's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. My friend Chris Frates, you've been covering Chris Christie for some time now, including the investigation. Tell me where this town meeting fits in? It's sort of like a public coming out party. He hasn't really faced the public until just now.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONIS: Well, you're right, John. First, I want to say congrats to both you and Michaela on the new show, getting lots of good buzz here in Washington. And that's something I think Chris Christie could use today, for sure.

This kind of -- this town hall, he's taken questions on the radio about this and we hear from voters. But this is a first time he's in front of the public and we'll see how concerned Jersey voters are about this. And the other thing to watch here, guys, is that this is a Sandy town hall meeting. And there's been lots of controversy surrounding the Sandy funding. He's taken some criticism about how it's been spent and he's looking to make a point here. He's on political high ground with Sandy. All the events he's done since Bridgegate have been Sandy focused. He won the election on Sandy. It's an area where he feels comfortable.

So even if there's going to be protesters there who want to to mix it up with him a little bit, that's an area he feels very comfortable in. And I'm looking for some of that back and forth, trademark Chris Christie town hall style where somebody gets up and challenges him and he ends up calling them an idiot or stupid or one of those kind of trademark Christie-isms.

So lots of things to watch here. But I think it's also important, the last time he took questions, not a lot of Bridgegate questions from Jersey voters when he did a radio show a few weeks ago. It will be interesting to see if that's bubbled up now or if people are still really interested in Sandy.

PEREIRA: Well, given where he's doing the speech from, the town hall from, the VFW (ph) there in New Jersey, I think he's got a fairly friendly audience.

Chris Oprison, let's talk to you. So let's talk bout the line of questioning. Would it be a good thing actually for him to get some of this tough questions so he can maybe expand the narrative that he's doing everything he can to cooperate with investigators?

CHRIS OPRISON, FORMER ASST. TO PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: You mean on Sandy or on the bridge scandal?

PEREIRA: On the bridge scandal. On both really.

OPRISON: You know what, listen, there's investigations. FBI has opened an investigation on the use of Sandy funds. And obviously you have the investigation of the Bridgegate scandal. And I think if I was recommending and advising the governor, I would say, listen, limit what you say. There's ongoing investigations.

You have to weigh and balance between somebody who's a public figure like Governor Christie and the fact that there is an ongoing investigation, and the risk of saying something and getting ahead of the facts. He doesn't know anything; he simply can't answer those questions. You say, listen, we're cooperating with the investigation. We're doing everything we can. I don't control what Stepien or Kelly do. They've got their own counsel, but I'm doing everything I can to cooperate. That's all I can tell you at this point.

And that's where he ought to leave it.

BERMAN: And we should say we're looking at a live picture of Governor Chris Christie, or we were a moment ago, in this town meeting in Port Monmouth. When he takes questions, we will give you some of that sound of the back and forth with the voters right there.

Mark Preston, this has undoubtedly already left a mark. No matter how you think the governor has handled it, it has affected him in the realm of public opinion. There's a national poll from Qunnipiac where I was looking at his favorability. In December that favorability was 47 percent; by January, 33 percent. That's a pretty big drop, Mark Preston.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yeah, it's a hit. And look, he was a front runner for the nomination after he won reelection back in November. Right now, he's in the middle of the pack, John. But the fact of the matter is, we're still so far out from the running for president in 2016. But he is still in many ways one of the front runners for the Republican presidential nomination.

Let's talk about the numbers of where he was though back in November when he won reelection. He won reelection in a Democratic state of New Jersey. I can tell you, four years ago, he was not even supposed to win in New Jersey. However, he did win in November. He won women; he won Latinos; he won moderates; he won independents. He won a third of the Democrats. In many ways, he was a candidate for the Republican Party they have been searching for so long.

In fact, he's going to be here in two weeks and he's going to speak before the Conservative Political Action Conference. These are grassroots activists that don't necessarily like Chris Christie because he's from the northeast. Yet he does hold a lot of their values because he's pro-life, because he doesn't necessary believe in giving marriage rights to same sex couples. He's going to speak to this group who are now starting to flock to him because he thinks the liberal media is attacking him so much.

So while he is being dinged and while he is losing popularity amongst the masses, the base is starting to come to him. So we'll see what he does during the town hall today, John. And even though he is going to get questions from Bridgegate, it's not so much the answers; it's how he responds to answers. And if he does do those Christie-isms, that's probably a bad thing. If he does act very presidential, that's probably a good thing.

PEREIRA: Well, gentlemen, we're going to ask you to keep your seats because we're going to keep watching this town hall. And when we get some good sound from it, we'll listen to it and bring you back in to have a conversation with us. Chris Frates, Mark Preston, Chris Oprison, thanks so much for joining us.

BERMAN: All right, ahead @ THIS HOUR next, the Confederate flag at the center of another heated debate here in the south, this time because it's featured on a new state-approved specialty license plate in Georgia. We'll hear from both sides in this debate over whether this flag honors Southern heritage or is a symbol of racial oppression.


BERMAN: It is a battle that's flaring here in Georgia. This is the flash point. It's a new state-approved specialty license plate that features the Confederate battle flag. And many Southerners believe that symbol honors their heritage.

PEREIRA: Many others see this as a racially charged symbol of oppression. We're joined by Ray McBerry, spokesman for the Georgia division Sons of the Confederates Veterans, and Charles Steele, he's the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Thank you both for being here to have this conversation with us.

Charles, let's start with you, first of all, why this new battle over the latest license tag? Supporters say they have a right to honor their legacy.

CHARLES STEELE, JR., PRES., SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONF.: Well, first of all, we have serious problems with racism within this country. And that's a part of our history in terms of the Confederacy. And that's where it should maintain, in history. Not to bring the dark side of our history in terms of this country, because the whole world is looking.

I just got back from Berlin, Germany. They were saying, we want to be like you are in America, working harmoniously with both ethnicity and races.

So what I'm saying if it's a part of history, it's a dark side of history. We were lynched. We were tortured. Our family was divided under this type of mindset. We cannot afford to go back. And you're talking about 50 years later after the 1963 march on Washington.

BERMAN: So Ray, what about that? We've all heard the argument that this is part of Southern heritage; it's part of Georgia's heritage. Is it part of Charles' heritage? There are a lot of African-Americans that live in Georgia. That's the Confederate battle flag right there. Is that part of their heritage that is deserving of commemoration?

RAY MCBERRY, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS: Well, it absolutely is, John. We actually as an organization have members of every ethnic group that lived in the South during the war from 1860 to 1865. We have black members; we have Jewish members; we have Hispanic members. The Sons of Confederate Veterans is not an organization that has to do with race, and we find it ironic that here in the month of February, the folks that are criticizing us for wanting to celebrate our own history and heritage, are some of the same folks that are celebrating theirs this month. And we simply as an organization believe that every people have a right --

BERMAN: I'm sorry, are you talking about Black History Month? Are you equating Black History Month with a celebration of the Confederacy?

MCBERRY: No, we're saying every group of people has a right to celebrate their own heritage and history. And we find it ironic that the folks are that are being critical of the license plate having Confederate heritage symbols would bemoan someone else celebrating their own history and heritage while they've got their own celebration going this month. We think it's a little bit hypocritical.

PEREIRA: But at the cost of celebrating one's is the cost of celebrating somebody else. Charles, what do you -- when you hear that, what is that...

STEELE: Well, the first thing that come to my mind, well, when are we going to join alliance? Should we have a tag with the Black Panther Party?

BERMAN: Would you be okay with that, Ray?

MCBERRY: We think every organization that meets the qualifications that the Department of Motor Vehicles has established here in Georgia ought to have their own specialty plate. And we don't have a problem with any organization.

STEELE: Well next you have the Ku Klux Klan. I mean this is a negative that we can't afford. It's bad for business.

PEREIRA: One of the things, Charles, that you said that upsets you and the group that is definitely against, is that the state has sanctioned this.

STEELE: That's where I have my serious problem. The state should've stayed out of this. If you have a home and you resided at a certain location, it's okay. That's your property. But this is sanction. This is supported by the State of Georgia. That is a no-no. That's saying that they're willing to support slavery. Take us back inch by inch. We cannot be tolerant on this particular issue.

BERMAN: Ray, there are what? Millions and millions of drivers on the road here in Georgia? Over the last two years, 439 have bought the old specialty plate.

MCBERRY: No, I'm sorry, those numbers are not correct. I don't know who gave those numbers to the reporter that wrote that story. Every year we have -- in the last several years between 3,000 and 4,000 people each year that request a specialty license plate from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And that was before we had the battle flag on there so prominently featured like we do this year. In the past it's just been a small logo for the organization, which does have a battle flag on it. But 3-4,000 people each year have requested it. Again, I don't know how those figures came about.

BERMAN: Do you at least understand how this can spur feelings in African-Americans in Georgia, or people elsewhere in the country? The Confederate battle flag, do you at least understand how it means something very different to other people?