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No U.S. Troops in Afghanistan?; Bill Clinton in Kentucky; Arizona Firestorm; Interview with Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey; Say It Ain't "Snow"

Aired February 25, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Hide your soda pop, school students in the Miami area. The first lady is coming in this hour.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The politics lead. He's been out of office 13 years, but he's still the secret weapon Democrats on the trail are looking for in these heated midterm battles. Former President and possible future first husband Bill Clinton wades into a contentious race in the South.

The world lead, the crowds massive, the violence persistent as Venezuelans rebel about their socialist-leaning government. The U.S. expels three of that country's diplomats. Is that a move meant to antagonize?

And the national lead. Would it be religious protection or legalized discrimination? After businesses spoke out, it looks increasingly like Arizona's controversial bill that protects businesses who refuse service to gays and lesbians for religious reasons could die on the Republican governor's desk.

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

We're going to begin today with the politics lead. Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs. Republicans need six seats and the races are off. Radio and TV airwaves are already cluttered with campaign ads in some places. Establishment Republicans are fending off attacks from Tea Party rivals and Democrats in purple states are working feverishly to put a Grand Canyon-sized gap between themselves and President Obama.

The first of the primary showdowns will take place exactly one week from today in Texas. GOP party leaders have made no secret of the fact that they smell blood in the water, thanks in part to the abysmal rollout of Obamacare. This has left Senate Democrats vulnerable in states such as Arkansas, North Carolina, Alaska, and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, Democrats are keeping their fingers crossed that dysfunction within the Republican Party ranks will punch their tickets back to Capitol Hill. All of this brings us to Kentucky, where the man from Hope was out on the trail today.

Former Bill Clinton is rallying support for the Democrat running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of the hottest races of the midterm season.

Our correspondent Erin McPike is live in Louisville.

Erin, can Clinton sway the race?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we're still eight months away from Election Day, but Bill Clinton drew 1,200 Democrats out to lunch here today. He's very popular with all the working-class voters that Democrats need that if they are to have any chance of beating Mitch McConnell.

But we should also point out that Bill Clinton is very close to the candidate and her family.


MCPIKE (voice-over): Bill Clinton's favorite season is starting, campaign time.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, I love Kentucky. You have been good to me. You have voted for me twice. You have been great to Hillary. I love Kentucky.


MCPIKE: The former president is making his 2014 trail debut in Louisville to help, who else, an old friend, Alison Lundergan Grimes, daughter of donor and former Kentucky Democratic Chair Jerry Lundergan.

CLINTON: It makes a big difference who wins this election and, Alison Lundergan Grimes should win it and will with your help.

MCPIKE: She's the secretary of state who's practiced law and done plenty of politicking with her father.


MCPIKE: Jerry Lundergan did two tours as the Bluegrass State's Democratic chair and oversaw Hillary Clinton's 2008 Kentucky landslide over Barack Obama. The family business, Lundy's, catered inaugural events and Chelsea's wedding in 2010.

Now Clinton is returning favors to the next in line. Grimes is just 35 and playing up that she would be the state's first woman in the U.S. Senate.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES (D), KENTUCKY SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: You will hear over the course of this campaign especially on behalf of the women of this state 53 percent of the electorate, a little Katy Perry roar, and by the end of this, by the end of this race, eight months from now, we will be bringing home our Kentucky girl Miley Cyrus with a little wrecking ball straight to the guardian of gridlock.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am thrilled to be here today as Kentuckians continues our fight to ditch Mitch.

MCPIKE: McConnell has spent three decades in the Senate and as minority leader is the GOP's last line of defense against President Obama.

Grimes is hitting McConnell hard for Washington gridlock, charging that, as Republican leader, he's responsible for Washington's dysfunction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not only can she beat Mitch McConnell. She is going to beat Mitch McConnell.

MCPIKE: Beating him would be a coup for Democrats. The 42nd president is much more in demand this year than the 44th, who is seen by some as political Kryptonite.


MCPIKE: And, to that end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked today about having President Obama campaign for Senate Democrats, and Harry Reid said, basically, that we have one president going every place and that is Bill Clinton -- Jake.

TAPPER: Erin McPike, thank you so much.

For more on this, I want to bring in our panel, CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen and CNN contributor and Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Guys, let's first start with -- Erin just talked about what Harry Reid had to say. Let's play a little bit about which Mitch McConnell had to say about Clinton in Kentucky.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: I welcome him back. The last time he ran in 1996, he eked out a narrow victory in Kentucky, while I beat the current governor by 160,000 votes, 10 points.

In 2008, both Bill and Hillary Clinton came to town, including the day before the election, and I won by 100,000 votes. So I welcome President Clinton back to Kentucky. Every time he's come, it's been really good for me.


TAPPER: I guess one question would be, though, McConnell, before he gets to Alison Grimes, he has to face down a Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin. Do you think that that makes this race different from these previous years?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, yes, but I do think he's pretty well positioned to come out of that primary OK and then still go and have a better chance of drawing a contrast against Alison Grimes in a general election. But I think Mitch McConnell's points are right, is that Bill Clinton, while less toxic than President Obama, hasn't really been that great of an asset for candidates in Kentucky. In 2008 and 2010, both of the Senate candidates there in those cycles were beat handily, even though Bill Clinton and even Hillary Clinton had come in to campaign for them.

So, again, this is going to be about a question between the contrast of the two people on the ballot and that's Alison Grimes and ultimately it will be Mitch McConnell.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I actually think that is right. I think a surrogate here will matter less. Bill Clinton is obviously very well-known. I think he is popular in Kentucky.

Alison Grimes is actually running ahead of McConnell in polls. And McConnell, I have been surprised about this, that his approval rating, even among Republicans, is only around 60 percent.

This guy is not the same popular politician that he has been in Kentucky for the last 20 years. This is a different guy running, and being beaten up in the primary from the right, from this Tea Party candidate, is going to affect him.

MADDEN: Midterms are unique, though, in a sense that the president's popularity is also always on the ballot. And we see President Obama's popularity right now, it's barely in the 30s...


ROSEN: You just said that it was only between Grimes and McConnell. Now you're saying...




MADDEN: No, I think the contrast between those candidates is going to be important, but we know in midterms that is unique, right?

And then we also do know that if any time somebody like Bill Clinton comes to Kentucky, it is a reminder that Barack Obama cannot be there. I think the reason he cannot be there is also pretty -- I think that is pretty relevant to a lot of the voters out there, which is that he's unpopular and Obamacare is unpopular and Obamacare is going to be a central issue.


ROSEN: Here, you have got a popular Kentucky native in Alison Grimes. This is between the two of them, and I think she's going to pull it out.

TAPPER: I was going to say, even when President Obama was very popular, Kentucky was never really Obama country.


TAPPER: But let's turn to President Obama and Speaker Boehner, who met in the Oval Office to talk about everybody from immigration reform to Obamacare to Afghanistan.

One aide to Speaker Boehner released a readout of their meeting that said -- quote -- "They agreed that there's a lot of work to do the rest of the year and it's important to work together wherever we can find common ground."

Less than two hours later, the speaker to the floor to pounce on a new report from the Obama administration itself that concluded, although it didn't take into account things such as different stipends for businesses, tax credits, but it included that Obamacare could raise premiums for roughly two-thirds of small companies.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Another sucker punch to our economy, another broken promise to hardworking Americans.


TAPPER: Is there any reason to think that anything will happen this year?

MADDEN: It's very tough.

I mean, look, every time you get into an election year, folks up on Capitol Hill are more likely to talk about what their differences are than what they can find common ground on.

It's just inherent I think in the system right now. So I think most folks right now are going to be looking to draw the contrast on immigration. They are going to be looking to draw the contrast on Obamacare. They are going to be looking to draw the contrast on spending. It's just simply the way things are on Capitol Hill right now.


You know, there are a couple of things, like the highway bill -- The highway trust fund is about to run out -- where they may end up finding some common ground, but I think Kevin is right. I think there is no just reward in working together this year, and the right and the left are pounding the middle for compromise.

TAPPER: On that cheery note, Hilary, Kevin, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, when we come back, President Obama drawing a line in the sand -- why he is putting his foot down with the president of Afghanistan. That's coming up.

And, later, the first lady gets a celebrity help with her Let's Move campaign.


WILL FERRELL, ACTOR: If I eat a great diet six days a week, but on Sunday, I eat nothing but candy, is that OK?





TAPPER: But four years later, is the Let's Move campaign really working?


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And it's time now for the world lead. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been playing hardball, refusing to sign an agreement that would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan past this year.

Now, President Obama is calling his bluff. He spoke to the Afghan leader earlier today and for the first time called Karzai and acknowledged publicly to the American people is preparing a contingency plan that would leave no troops in Afghanistan, no small counterterrorism force, no advisers, no trainers, what's known as the zero option.

Our own Jim Acosta questioned the White House press secretary Jay Carney on this, about any wiggle room.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is a fact that there will be no truce?


ACOSTA: By December 31st, they will all be gone?

CARNEY: Absolutely.

ACOSTA: No wavering on that?

CARNEY: Absent of the S.A., there will be no troops on the ground beyond the end of the year.


TAPPER: Joining me now to talk about the zero option in Afghanistan and much more is Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Our Jim Sciutto reports that a senior government official in Pakistan, a senior Pakistani government official, said that a complete withdrawal will lead to a, quote, "holocaust".

Now, I know you've had your issues with Karzai in the past. Are you comfortable with a zero presence, no U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, look, I think even the administration is not comfortable with the context of the zero option, but it has to make very clear, which I support the administration on, is that for us to continue to have troops in Afghanistan, even at a diminished amount of troops, we need a bilateral security agreement, we need to ensure that the troops that will be there helping the Afghans continue to sustain the stability of their country and their democracy is under U.S. authority. And without that, it's very difficult for us to leave troops in any country without such a bilateral security agreement.

So, I think at the end of the day, we've made it very clear that we are willing to keep a presence in Afghanistan and that we want to continue to help the Afghan forces and work in counterterrorism but we can't do that without a bilateral security agreement.

TAPPER: Let's turn to Venezuela. You just got back from Central and South America. I want to first point out this image of (AUDIO GAP) you can hear the person filming this screaming.

It's a very tense time right now in Venezuela. The State Department just announced that last night, they notified three Venezuelan diplomats that they have 48 hours to leave the U.S., this in response, of course, to the three U.S. diplomats that Venezuela expelled earlier this month.

Is the U.S. antagonizing the Venezuelan government with these ejections?

MENENDEZ: No. On the contrary, you know, President Maduro finds it very easy to continuously expel U.S. officials, in this case, three consular officers. We have absolutely nothing to do with the protests in Venezuela. But he uses that as an excuse and, of course, our response is I think an appropriately measured response.

Look, what President Maduro has to explain to his people, how is a country so rich, oil rich like Venezuela, at a 56 percent inflation rate? Why is it only growing at 1 percent of GDP, the lowest in Latin America? Why is it that, in fact, those students are taking to the streets which he calls fascist?

Who is the fascist? The students who go to the streets to promote democracy and want the greater freedoms, or those military -- you know, the militia-armed individuals who are supporting Maduro's military and shooting and killing now up to three individuals in Venezuela with several hundred wounded?

I think those are the questions that President Maduro needs to answer.

TAPPER: The U.S., the White House has said that they don't want to vocally be more involved or in other ways because they don't want to give Maduro the excuse of blaming the Americans. When you see what the White House is doing or not doing and you hear the chants from Venezuelans about not wanting to live under a Cuban-style dictatorship, what's your response?

MENENDEZ: My response is that there are many ways to help the pro- democracy advocates in Venezuela. First of all, we could be moving for a multilateral approach with the OAS. I want to salute that the Mexican, the Colombians, the Peruvians have all made some very strong statements about the violence in Venezuela and the need for return to peace and freedoms for its individuals.

The OAS has a democratic charter. We should be promoting that.

We should also be considering that if the Maduro's government is actually in the midst with its militias, as has publicly been reported, you know, hurting individual protesters, civilians inside of Venezuela who are peacefully protesting and it's arrested its opposition leader just for calling for protests -- I don't know that we'd be arresting people in the United States just for calling for protests here in Washington. Leopoldo Lopez is one example. That, in fact, we shouldn't be considering targeted sanctions against those in the Maduro government who are using violence, whether it's visa or revocations or targeted freezing of accounts here in the United States, those are strong statements that are not interventionist but about human rights and democracy.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the Ukraine for the last question, sir. You're about to be briefed by Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Secretary of State John Kerry just said that the U.S. wants to work with Russia on helping Ukraine with the transition. Do you think Russia is a partner that the U.S. can trust?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, I'm very concerned about Russia, especially under Putin. You know, Putin thinks in the context of Peter the Great. Why was Peter great? Because he added more territory to the Russian empire.

And I think that's President Putin's views as well, adding more territory to the Russian federation.

I get concerned, based upon what we saw in Georgia and elsewhere where the Russians went in and gave passports to those who have some type of Russian descent and said these are now Russian citizens, we have to protect them. I could see that happening in the Ukraine, in Crimea, for example.

So I hope we send a very strong message along with our European allies that we need Ukrainians to decide their own future without the intervention of Russia or others. And we need to do that from a position of strength, because if not, Putin won't understand anything but that. TAPPER: Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- thank you so much, sir.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: When we come back, pull out the scarves and hats again. Frigid temperatures making their way across the United States and most of the country is once again going to feel the pain.

Plus, President Bush proving he's no longer shy about his masterpieces, where you'll be able to see the former president's paintings up close -- coming up.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The national lead now. Winter has officially became that slightly tippy wedding guest who crosses the line from mildly entertaining to just plain old obnoxious. Much of the country is in for yet another arctic blast that could send temperatures plunging as much as 35 degrees below normal. And as if to further underscore the point that yes, it's still February. Parts of the D.C. area got blanketed today with a fresh coating of snow.

Joining me now is meteorologist Chad Myers live from the CNN weather center.

Chad, how soon will this bitter cold move back in?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It comes in -- it's already in Chicago. It's already in Minneapolis. It comes into the big cities tonight, tomorrow, and really the bulk of it is on Thursday into Friday.

Chicago, now somewhere around 17, won't get above freezing for the next seven days. In fact, many lows in Chicago will be 5 or 10 below zero. It's going to be 17 below in the Twin Cities.

This is the cold air. Now, it skirts the south. It gets here. But the low in Atlanta is going to be 22. We'll take that.

This is the core of the cold. Ontario, Quebec, but it swings down through and into the upper Midwest and even clips New York City as well.

Here are the lows tonight. Minneapolis, 14 degrees below zero. That's -- do the math. That's 46 degrees below freezing.

Chicago, one below. That's the morning low. Even for New York, you get to 18 tonight. But that's not the coldest night of the week. Tomorrow night will be colder and Friday night will be colder than that.

It gets down to 11 in New York City for Thursday morning. Back out here, you don't even want to see this. Seven below zero in Chicago with wind making the windchill factor even worse than that.

But look how this is -- this is the guest like you said, Jake. They will not leave the Super Bowl party and the game has been over for four hours. They just -- the winter just will not leave.

TAPPER: Brutal.

All right. Chad Myers, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

When we come back, three Republicans who voted in favor of a controversial bill, well, they're now saying that they made a mistake. But will that make any difference to the governor of Arizona as she makes her decision about what to do?

Plus, President Obama remembers a comedy legend as only a true fan can. What is he saying about one of the creators of "Caddyshack" and "Ghostbusters"? That's coming up.