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Unrest in Ukraine; Turning Gays Away?; Interview with Tony Blinken; Religious Freedom or License to Discriminate?

Aired February 21, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Springlike temperatures today, but the frigid air, we're told, is returning soon. I have seen more consistency in the figure skating judging in Sochi.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

President Obama has downplayed the idea that the unrest in Ukraine is a proxy conflict between Russia and the West, yet he just picked up the phone to call Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a peace deal that neither had a direct hand in negotiating. Will it hold?

The national lead. No shirt, no shoes, no straight relationship, no service. A bill in Arizona would guard business owners who refuse to serve gays and others. Is it religious protection or a license to discriminate?

And the sports lead. South Korea's Yuna Kim skated flawlessly, but lost the gold to a Russian upstart who stumbled on the ice. Surely the fact that Adelina Sotnikova is on the home team has nothing to do with that, right?

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

We will begin with some breaking news in the world lead. Let me list the players here, the Ukrainian president, the Ukrainian opposition leaders and mediators from the European Union. They all came to the table and made an agreement earlier today to hopefully end the bloodshed that we have seen this week in the Ukraine, but there are two parties I did not mention, the U.S. and Russia.

And yet the deal was the topic of discussion when President Obama called his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin, just a few minutes ago. Yes, the U.S. did denounce the violence and, yes, Russia's influence is deeply woven into the conflict in the Ukraine, but neither country played a public role in ceiling this peace agreement.

Russian sent in a mediator, but he opted not to sign the E.U.-brokered deal. The White House says everyone benefits from an end to the clashes in Ukraine between police and anti-government protesters which have led scores of people dead.


JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It is in Russia's interests for the violence to end in the Ukraine, as it is in the interest of the United States and our European friends and, of course, most importantly, the Ukrainian people.


TAPPER: As you recall, the protests began in the Ukraine last year after President Viktor Yanukovych chose closer ties with Russia instead of signing a trade deal with the E.U.

Demonstrators want to see their future aligned with the West, not with similar Vladimir Putin. Yet President Obama has downplayed the notion that Ukraine is caught in a proxy struggle between Russia and the U.S.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future.


TAPPER: Not a chessboard. Maybe more like a board from the game of "Risk"?

Under the peace deal in the Ukraine, the constitution has been changed to curtail the president's powers and he could be tossed out in elections that will be moved up from next year to this year.

The last time President Obama and Vladimir Putin spoke was January 21, where the topic was Syria, security for the Sochi Olympics and of course "how best to advance shared U.S./Russian interests."

I have a feeling the conversation was a little different this time around.

Joining me now is Tony Blinken. He's the White House deputy national security adviser.

Tony, good to see you, as always.

What is the president's message to Putin? What is he trying to accomplish with this call?

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Jake, first of all, Ukraine was on the brink of an economic and political implosion.

And now, thanks to the agreement that was reached today, there's a way forward, and that is significant, significant progress. The president and President Putin spoke just a short while ago. And President Putin expressed his support for the agreement and pledged to work toward its implementation.

That's the critical thing now, making sure that what was agreed gets implemented. TAPPER: How much did the U.S. have to do with this agreement at all?

BLINKEN: Oh, a lot.

I think this was a very good example of the United States and Europe working very closely together in tight coordination to help get this done. You had the president coordinating with Chancellor Merkel yesterday, the vice president on the phone repeatedly with President Yanukovych, very, very tight coordination between our diplomats and the Europeans who were in there yesterday they were trying to negotiate this deal.

This, I don't think would have happened without the coordinated efforts of the United States and Europe.

TAPPER: When Ukraine was in crisis on Wednesday, President Obama was in Mexico meeting with leaders of Canada and Mexico. I want to play what he said.


OBAMA: And we will be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line.


TAPPER: Now, Tony, beyond the vague idea of sanctions, the administration has not been clear to the press or the public what those consequences might be.

Have you been clearer to Yanukovych and the Ukrainians, and, if so, what are the tools in this toolkit?

BLINKEN: Yes, we have been very clear, and I think that had an important impact in getting people to move.

First of all, we have already issued some visa restrictions on those who were responsible for the violence and repression. And under the law, we can't reveal the names of the people that are on that list, but they are aware of it, and that had an impact.

We also told them that other steps could be forthcoming. And I think that had a real impact on their thinking, not just folks in the government, but some of the strong oligarchs who support the government and who also didn't like the idea of possibly not being able to travel here to Europe to do business in both places.

So I think the possibility of those consequences was a real motivating factor.

TAPPER: I have to say, I was a little surprised when President Obama used the term people stepping over the line, just because the red line with Syria has been such a controversy, because the United States threatened military action if chemical weapons were used against the Syrian people and then obviously stepped back from the brink of that. I know there's this chemical weapons deal.

But, theoretically, are you not at all concerned that when the president talks about lines being crossed because of what happened in Syria and that threat of use of force not being carried out, are you not concerned at all in the White House that that might ring hollow to various despots when they hear the president make a threat?

BLINKEN: I have got to admit, I really don't understand the criticism.

When it comes to Syria, we made it very clear we were prepared to act to deal with the chemical weapons. And what resulted was an agreement with Russia and with us that Syria adhered to, to give up its chemical weapons.

And had we acted militarily, we would not have been able to remove all the chemical weapons. Indeed, the targets probably would largely not have been the chemical weapons. As a result of the agreement we got because we were prepared to use force, Syria has now destroyed all of its capacity to produce chemical weapons, and the weapons themselves are moving out of the country.

So that, to me, is a tremendous success, and it was done without having to fire a shot.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about the Putin relationship, because obviously relations with Russia have not exactly been incredibly strong in recent years, because of -- we have the problem with Syria. You have the problem with the Ukraine. You have human rights issues, Edward Snowden.

President Obama and Vladimir Putin are on the same page when it comes to the Ukraine now?

BLINKEN: Jake, what I can tell you is this. And we will do a readout of the conversation shortly.

President Putin said he supported the agreement that was reached in Ukraine. He said that he wanted to work cooperatively with us, with the Europeans, with the International Monetary Fund to help develop a support package for Ukraine going forward. It was a very positive conversation.

They also talked about Iran and the cooperation that our teams are having together in working with Iran to try and get a nuclear agreement. And, indeed, we just had a session, as you know, this week where the Russians played a very positive role.

We obviously have our differences over Syria, but we will see tomorrow. There will be a vote in the U.N. Security Council on important resolution on humanitarian access in Syria. Hopefully, that will come out in a positive way.

So, look, we obviously have our differences. But what we have demonstrated is that when we are able to work together, we can actually get things done that benefit Russia, benefit the United States, and benefit the international community.

TAPPER: Tony, let's quickly turn to Venezuela. We're also seeing sometimes bloody violence and protests over the government and its president, Nicolas Maduro. Why isn't the U.S. government being as aggressive in calling out Maduro, especially since he has arrested and charged the opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez?

BLINKEN: Jake, when it comes to Venezuela, we have been very clear in our views.

But we also don't want to give Maduro the excuse of trying to make the United States look like the problem. This is about a problem that is of his own making, and they need to resolve it. Putting the United States in the middle of the story just creates an easy distraction and an ability for him to point fingers at something that is not the problem.

TAPPER: Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, thank you so much. We appreciate your time.

BLINKEN: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD, a controversial bill sitting on the Arizona governor's desk, but does it protect religious freedom or allow legal discrimination or both? It depends on who you ask.

Plus, the seedy backroom dealings of Washington, D.C., scheming politicians doing anything to advance their cause, sure, Netflix's "House of Cards" is a little over the top, but is the real Washington, D.C., in some ways even more cynical?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

A hypothetical for you in our national lead today. Let's say a gay couple walks into a business and the owner refuses to serve them. The couple sues, the owner loses, despite his claims that serving a gay couple in his establishment violates his religious beliefs.

Which party in this hypothetical was actually discriminated against? Now, it may not be much of a quandary in Arizona if Republican Governor Jan Brewer signs a controversial bill passed by state lawmakers.

It would allow individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs as a defense against lawsuits claiming discrimination. Supporters of the bill, like the Republicans who passed it in the state legislature, say this protects religious freedom and liberty and that they must show their beliefs are being substantially burdened.

They often cite cases such as the one in New Mexico when a photographer was sued for refusing to take wedding pictures of a same- sex college. Now, opponents of the law say it's a license to discriminate against people, especially against gays and lesbians who could be denied, say, medical treatment as a result of the law. Let's bring in one of the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh.

Representative Kavanagh, thanks so much for joining us.

There's a lot of debate right now and discussion about what this bill would allow and not allow. There's obviously some tension in this country between religious liberty and discrimination. This bill would protect business owners from lawsuit, from people claiming discrimination if those actions were part of the business owner's religious views.

So, give me an example of where this might be applied. You're saying it wouldn't be applied for somebody refusing to serve a same-sex couple at a restaurant. So, where would it apply?

STATE REP. JOHN KAVANAGH (R), ARIZONA: Well, it would only apply where a person had sincerely held religious beliefs. So, for example, if you were trying to sue or prosecute a Roman Catholic who wouldn't officiate a gay marriage, right, this law would protect them. If you were going after a physician who's Catholic or Orthodox Jewish physician, who was against abortion, and you were suing them because they wouldn't perform abortion, this law would, in fact, be a protection for that person.

TAPPER: Would it --

KAVANAGH: That's where it would apply.

TAPPER: OK. Would it apply for instance, if there was somebody religious observant and believed homosexuality to be a sin, owned a hotel that was opened to the public and are they allowed to not let a same-sex couple get a room at that hotel?

KAVANAGH: This law would not shield that particular hotel owner or a waiter in a restaurant because we're not talking here about substantial burdens.

Let's take the case of a photographer, right? One of the reasons why this bill came to light was you had a photographer who was being sued because the photographer would not officiate or take pictures at a gay wedding. Being involved in an action, a gay marriage that your religion says is wrong, that's a substantial burden because you're deeply involved in the ceremony. If that same gay couple came in for a passport photo, there is not a substantial burden upon your religion and you could not use this law to do that.

TAPPER: But it is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, where the substantial burden is if a physician, for example, disapproved of homosexuality because of his deeply held religious beliefs, he could refuse to treat a sexually transmitted disease of a gay man? Is that -- would that be part of the significant burden?

KAVANAGH: No, not under this law, because treating a sexual disease with anybody is not a burden on one's religion. I think what you have to understand is that these laws, this protection, it -- they came about the federal government in the 1990s. Arizona passed a particular law. And what the federal and state law says is the government can't substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion unless there's a compelling reason, even then only in the least restrictive manner.

All we did the other day was put two changes to that law. The first change was, we clarified that the definition of a person, the ones protected by this law, not just individuals but also corporations and associations and the Hobby Lobby case was the reason for that.

The second thing we did was expand what it protects against. The original federal and state law says it only protects you against a government action. We said, hey, this should also cover a private person using a government law or government courts and as a concession --

TAPPER: Representative Kavanagh, to a lot of gay and lesbian couples and to people who believe there shouldn't be discrimination against them, it sounds as though you're saying businesses now, if somebody has a religious objection to what they do, it sounds as though you're saying they now have an ability to discriminate. I don't yet understand exactly where this burden is. The examples I gave you say they're not -- they don't meet the burden.

Where is the line?

KAVANAGH: They are incorrect. The law about the substantial burden, that's been in effect federally and at the state level since the 1990s. We simply changed who it protects and included associations and we said it also covers somebody when they are being sued based on a law.

In addition, we increase the protection against discrimination. We've said that the religious belief can't be any religious belief. It has to be a sincerely held belief and then we said the burden can't be any burden on the religion, it has to be a substantial one. We made it harder for somebody to hide behind this law.

So, I don't understand why now -- since the 1990s, there's been no concern or no demonstrations about this.


KAVANAGH: We passed a law that does minor clarifications and makes it harder to discriminate and they are taking advantage of it to get publicity.

TAPPER: Obviously, your opponents disagree with your assessment.

One quick question for you -- the governor has not said what she's going to do, whether she's going to veto it or allow it to become law. Do you think she's going to allow it to become law?

KAVANAGH: I believe she will. Her main objection last year was that the terminology was insufficiently -- was too vague. And it would be too easy for people to gain this law and she required a tightening of the language.

And that's exactly what we did. We tightened the language. We took in Arizona Supreme Court tests to make sure that it's a true burden. So, I think all of her problems have been met.

TAPPER: State Representative Kavanagh, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

KAVANAGH: Thank you.

TAPPER: In other national news, their bravery distinguished in the wars of the 20th century. But now, long after they left or died on the field, twenty-four Army veterans of the World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War will finally receive the highest military decoration in the land, the Medal of Honor. Most of them were minorities who may have been overlooked in the past.

The White House announced their names today. Twenty-one of the honorees will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously. But three of them, all Vietnam veterans, are still with us. They're Specialist Four Santiago Erevia, Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris and Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela. Congratulations to them all and thank you for your service.

Coming up on THE LEAD, Michelle Obama hits the late night to make a push for Obamacare and to apparently prove she's no longer afraid to really embarrass her daughters to get a laugh.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now, it's time for our money lead. Our money lead is roughly $7 billion. That's how much U.S. taxpayers are making from Fannie Mae, according to the government.

The mortgage behemoth reported today that it will put that profit into the U.S. Treasury next month. This is more than just money. It's a milestone, they say. Taxpayers have now gotten back all $187 billion from the Fannie and Freddie bailouts from 2008. The $84 billion Fannie earned last year made 2013 its most profitable year on record. Officials say a drop in mortgage delinquency had a lot to do with that success.

Little brother Freddie Mac has already repaid its bailout. Next week, it's expected to announce more profit and payments to the Treasury.

Rubbernecking in a car accident is free out on the road but you can actually pay to gaze at wreckage in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Last week, a big sinkhole opened up right under the National Corvette Museum and swallowed eight classic models. One of them was a sublime 1962 black Corvette. What a shame.

Apparently, people really want to see these damaged cars, dings and all, so the museum is planning to put them on display before they are sent to the body shop. Right now, the vets are still in the hole and won't be pulled up for another couple of weeks.

Volvo used to get a bad rep for being boxy. Now, they can actually double as your mailbox. We all know how annoying it can be to be around when a package is delivered to your door. Well, now, Volvo is experimenting with a new technology that will allow UPS deliveries to the trunk of your car by giving delivery guys a special digital key that will grant them temporary access to get inside. Customers will be able to track their deliveries and even see when the truck is popped unlocked. What could go wrong?

Coming up next on THE LEAD: politicians twisting arms and cutting deals, of course, with some black prostitutes and drugs thrown in. But if you take away the murders from "House of Cards," how far off is it from the real Washington?

Plus, a shocking gold medal win from the home town girl and some are suggesting the scores did not match the performances. Did the judges play favorites?