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THE SITUATION ROOM
Obama Launches Powerful, Personal Initiative; Interview with Marc Morial
Aired February 27, 2014 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jake, thanks very much.
Happening now, "My Brother's Keeper". Emotion running deep at the White House as President Obama launches his most personal program aimed at giving young minority men a chance at success.
Troops go on high alert, mobs clash in the street, armed gunmen seize a parliament building, and strong warnings bring echoes of the cold war in a U.S./Russia scare (ph) down.
Plus, uncensored messages between those former Chris Christie aides bring new information and new outrage over the so-called Bridgegate scandal.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: It may be the most deeply personal cause on President Obama's agenda and it led to some very powerful moments today at the White House ceremony that ended just a little while ago. The president delivering a powerful speech and drawing on his own background, growing up without a father, the president launched a program called "My Brother's Keeper" to keep young minority men in school, out of jail and put them on the road to success.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I explained to them that when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses.
Sometimes, I sold myself short. And I remember when I was saying -- Chris, you may remember this. After I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, "Are you talking about you?"
OBAMA: I said, "Yes." And the point was I could see myself in these young men. My administration's policies from early childhood education to job training to minimum wages are designed to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own success. That's the larger agenda. But the plain fact is there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society.
Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions. Groups have seen opportunities that have spanned generations. And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country are boys and young men of calling (ph).
BLITZER: Powerful words from the president of the United States. Let's go to the White House. Don Lemon came down at Washington to cover this exciting and powerful moment today. Don, what was it like inside the White House when we heard those words from the president?
DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think the reaction from most people in the room, because you had, you know, almost every lawmaker of color in the country, mayors, you know, senators, congressmen. I think the real reaction, honest reaction, Wolf, was, finally. It's about time. He's human. He's a Black man and he is relating on a level that many people had criticized him that he didn't relate on before.
And, you know, I think we realize in that room that history was being made and that, hopefully, this will be a turning point for the people and I hate to call them demographics, but we're talking about young men of color, a turning point for young men of color because, as he said in the aggregate, they fair far worse than most people, for whatever circumstances, whatever reasons, whether it's racism, whether it's, you know, because of their own fault, whatever it is.
And so, the time is now. And if it's not going to happen now, then when will it happen? If it won't happen with this president who is the first African-American president, then when will it happen? And who knows when or if we'll ever get another president of color in our lifetime or ever. And so, that's what it was like being in the White House and people -- many people came up to me, journalists, lawmakers, celebrities, every-day folks who were there saying, this is big. This is history and we must hold him to it.
BLITZER: It certainly is. And now, tell us a little bit about the initiative "My Brother's Keeper." What exactly are the specific items, the main headlines that the president wants to see done?
LEMON: OK. So, here's what -- this is the bottom line with "My Brother's Keeper". Because the president faces such opposition politically, every president does, but this one in particular when it comes to Congress, what he has done is taken this outside of Congress and outside of the beltway and what he is doing is bringing together philanthropist, people with money, people in the faith-based community.
And, he's bringing those people outside of government together to donate hundreds of millions of dollars towards an initiative that will try to figure out how to help young men of color across the country. What types of mentoring programs are working across the country and how can they mimic them or recreate them? What Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser said to me is that they don't want to reinvent the wheel.
They want to take what's working across the country like BAM, which is "Becoming A Man," that program, with the young man who introduced him is from that BAM program. And when he said -- in your sound bite, Wolf, when he said, "what I said to them was, you know, I didn't always take things seriously," he's talking about meeting with those young men in Chicago back in February and then meeting with them again at the White House back in July.
So, that's what they're doing. A $150 million has already been given now, and he's promising at least $200 million over the next five years. All of these folks here, including, you know, people from major foundations and philanthropists from across the country, including The Bloomberg Foundation, Mayor Bloomberg, Rahm Emanuel, all these folks are going to meet.
And within 90 days, they're going to come up with what works give the plan to the president and they're going to try to take that around the country.
BLITZER: Yes. We have a picture when the president was in Chicago meeting with some of these young men from this BAM, "Be A Man" Program. And obviously, the president was moved by that. I want to bring in our CNN political commentator, Cornell Belcher. You were there at the White House as well, right, Cornell?
CORNELL BELCHER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It was really powerful, Wolf. I got to tell you, I don't think I've seen a president sort of more, you know, laid bare and with his defenses down, so we're talking about these issues. It's clearly the issue that's very sort of personal to him and moving to him. And I think we've never seen him connect.
You know, he's talked about his drug use earlier before, but we've never seen him connect his drug use to anger that he had and that anger about not having a father there in a really, really personal way. Clearly this is an issue dear and near to the president's heart.
BLITZER: Why do you think it's taken so long? He's been -- five year. This is year six of his presidency?
BELCHER: I hear criticism like that. The truth of the matter is, look, in a hyper partisan environment where he has to run for re- election, an issue like this can easily be polarized. I mean, any sort of conversation around race, as you know in this country, Wolf, sends people to their polarized corners. The last thing the president wants to do when he's running for re-election is to have a country more polarized.
I think the beauty of this time now is you can have more risky conversations that are important for moving this country forward right now in his second term. So, I'm thankful that he did. And there's a lot of people in that room who are thankfully.
BLITZER: I want to play another excerpt from the president's powerful speech. Cornell and Don, both of you listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: No excuses. Government, private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. We've got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience. That's what we're here for. But you've got responsibilities, too. And I know you can meet the challenge.
Many of you already are, if you make the effort. It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or societies lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future. It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stuck against you. You might as well just give up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Don, if you listen closely to what the president said, you did, I did, Cornell did, there's no doubt, you, Don Lemon, you've been saying a lot of the same things over the past several years and you've been getting some serious criticism for saying what we heard the president say today and I want you to respond to that.
LEMON: It's not about me, but, yes, I have been doing that -- I mean, to hear that, it makes me very emotional, because you know, obviously, I am a journalist. We want to remain objective, but I'm also a human being and I relate to that more than most, than you, Wolf, and you and I are friends. And you get that. You know, you and I we'll see each other Saturday night at an event, but you understand those things.
Many people across the country don't understand that. They don't get it. And I just left Illinois State University the other night saying the same thing to students that when they come into the newsroom, Wolf, you know this, they will come and they'll talk to me and they'll say, Don, how do I make it as a strong, Black man in this business? How do I make it as a strong, Black woman or as a gay -- and I always tell them -- I mean, they do within 30 seconds.
And I'll always say stop looking at yourself as other. Yes, we get racism. Yes, we get bigotry. We understand all those things. But you should let people like me worry about that. You should let people like Wolf Blitzer worry about that. You should let people like Cornell Belcher worry about that. People who have gone true the fire. You concern yourself right now with being excellent, and we will take care of the rest.
Yes, you can be aware of who you are and you can be proud of your identity and all those things but just concern yourself with being excellent, and then before you know it, all of those things that you thought were hindrances will be your silent motivators. And you will have made it and you will be doing it and working in your career and you'll look back and go, how did I do this?
So, you cannot -- what the president was saying is regardless of the circumstances around you and, yes, we get racism, yes, we get -- the playing field is not even, but you cannot let that stop you. You must take those hurdles. What a hurdler does, when he is running or she is running is that they leap over the hurdle. They don't let the hurdle stop. They don't stop and go, I can't go past this because there's a hurdle right there.
You figure out how to get your mind together, your game together, your body together, whatever it is that you need to do, and you leap over that hurdle. And you don't let other people define who you are because they may think of you as other or you're a Black person or they may be discriminating against you. You go, damn that. I don't care. I define who I am. And in -- as James Baldwin says of the most terrifying odds, I can become whatever it is that I want to become and I can achieve.
And so, that's what the president was saying by that. Many people don't get that. They get upset and they call --, oh, you're practicing respectability policies. This has nothing to do with what White people think about you. This is to do with what you think about yourself, how you carry yourself, what you think in your mind that you can achieve. That's what that has to do.
And so, I get sick of hearing that from people because they're always talking about, you know, you think that you're White because you speak a certain way. You're acting White or you're educating you're acting White or you're trying to please a White man. No, I'm pleasing myself. I'm doing these things for myself so that I can be better, so that my family can be proud of me, so that if I happen to have kids, that they can be proud of and they can look up to me and go, I can do it.
If Don Lemon can do it, then I know that I can do it. That's one of the reasons as a gay person that I came out. I wanted kids who may have been dealing with that to realize, that guy on television is a normal guy. He's just like me. It is OK. I want my nieces and my grand-nephews to look up at me and go, you know what, if my Uncle Don did that, I can do it as well. So, this has nothing to do with being an uncle tom or being White or not being respectful of your race.
This has to do with personal responsibility with what you think about yourself and that you can achieve. Who cares, who gives a damn about racism? It is always going to be there. It has been there since the beginning of time, so you must figure out how you can achieve regardless of that, in spite of that, and that's what the president was saying.
BLITZER: And you have been, Don, an inspiration to a lot of folks out there. I want you to stand by. Cornell, stand by. I want to get your take on what we just heard from Don. A lot more. We'll continue this conversation, but once again, listen to what the president said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: I can see myself in these young men, and the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. (END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: And the worst part is, we've become numb to these statistics. We're not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is.
OBAMA: That's how we think about it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Powerful personal words and emotional words from the president of the United States. Let's get back to our top story. It happened at the White House this afternoon. The president drawing on his own experiences and launching a program to help young minority men get a better chance at success. It's called "My Brother's Keeper" and it may be the most deeply personal cause on the president's agenda.
Let's continue the conversation. Cornell Belcher, our CNN political commentator, also joining us LZ Granderson, CNN commentator. Cornell, I wanted you to react to what he heard from Don Lemon. You know, Don had been criticized by some in the African-American community for saying over the past several years what we heard from the president of the United States today.
Belcher: And my point is, I'll take it back even further, because I was one of the people who was on the Obama campaign in 2008 and you remember, Wolf, that was the time when, quite frankly, Hillary was winning after American voters, you know, by a large swath. And we decided to do the fatherhood speech in South Carolina. We had to win South Carolina. We had to win South Carolina. We had to win South Carolina big, depending on a lot of African-American vote.
When the president went in there and start talking about responsibility, which something he feels very personal (ph) about, started talking about responsibility, he put himself very much within the values contain where the African-American community, and quite frankly, if you go throughout the south, I mean, Black church (ph) to the south, they are always talking about sort of personal responsibility. So, it's not a new conversation.
I think the criticism of Don and the president that you hear often is from a criticism class, but it's clearly not from the mainstream of Africa-American thinkers and the mainstream of African-American voters who overwhelmingly move toward this man and voted for him not once but twice. So, I think he's very much within the continue (ph) of African-American thinking talking about personal responsibility. BLITZER: LZ, you were over at the White House and you participated, observed this event. It's something we really haven't seen the president open up as personally, as emotionally as he did today.
LZ GRANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. And part of the reason why is he has the burden of being the first, you know? And if Hillary Clinton gets in, she will have the burden of being the first. What I mean by that is, when you're coming in as the first Africa-American president, there's a sort of expectation that you're going to do things to help your community.
And he's been criticized for not doing that and it's tricky for him, because he doesn't want to be perceived as the president of Black people. He wants to be perceived as the president of the United States.
BLITZER: He is the president of the United States.
GRANDERSON: Right. But, if he comes out doings things that seems to aggressively helping only Black people, then he's characterized as being the president of Black people. So, he was cautious in his first term. He's a little bit freer now. Now, we're seeing other initiatives that are dear and closer to his heart. And come on, he's from Chicago.
I live in Chicago. He is right. We have gotten to the point in that city where we read about young Black men being killed and we don't pause. And that is horrific. And I loved the fact that he pointed that up because I think that struck home for a lot of people.
BLITZER: Yes. He says the worst part is we've become numb to these statistics. He's absolutely right. Marc Morial here, a good friend, the president of the National Urban League. I want to read to you what we heard from Tavis Smiley. You know Tavis Smiley from PBS, a very smart guy. This is what he told Fox News last October.
I'll put it up on the screen. "The data is going to indicate sadly that when the Obama administration is over, Black people will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category. On that regard, the president ought to be held responsible". Those are pretty strong words.
MARC MORIAL, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE: Those are strong words, but you've got to consider the source, because Tavis, you know, a friend of mine, has been a critic of the president since before he became the president. So, I've got to take his comments in that context. But having said that, Wolf, what's important about today is that President Obama struck the right balance between the conversation about responsibility and the fact that the challenges are a moral cause.
And I think he personally and I think squarely put his legacy as president behind this idea that it is time for us to confront this problem very openly.
So, why I'm encouraged is because the president put his reputation, he put his presidency, he put this idea that I'm going to convene and bring people together and while these comments, I think, people as you listen to these comments, but this goes back to what he said, I think, right after Trayvon Martin and after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case where he gave a very, very personal set of comments that seemed to be extemporaneous, seem to not be a part of the script he was reading, in the press room (ph) over at the White House.
And I think since that time, I do think that this has been on the president's mind and I applaud him today and we look forward to being a part of this.
BLITZER: And Don Lemon, let me go back to the White House, because Don Lemon was there as well. You guys were inside the White House for this extraordinary meeting today. Don, Trayvon Martin's parents, they were there as well. And the president, as we know, had said not that long ago, if he would have had a son, it could have turned out like -- it could have looked like Trayvon Martin.
What was it like in there with Trayvon Martin's parents, such a personal, emotional moment?
LEMON: Trayvon Martin's mother was sitting right next to Jordan Davis' mother. And you know, since it happened to both their sons, they have vowed to be each other's support system and you could see that that was so and the president also pointed them out and acknowledged them in the crowd. What Marc Moriel said was right on.
He struck the right tone between, hey, listen, for some reason in our country, these young men have been oppressed and they're dealing with the issues, but also, it's up to them to achieve. Here's what we're going to be doing in five years or ten years, especially with that group from BAM in Chicago. We're going to be saying, you know, the president's first initiative on young Black men, where are they now? Where are these guys now?
And so, we have to look for them to achieve and see where they are in five years, ten years, 15 years because they're going to be markers. But also, I think that right after the George Zimmerman verdict, during the whole Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman fiasco, if you want to call that, I think the president was struck by that, but he was also meeting in July with those men from BAM in the oval office.
And unbeknownst to the mentor of that BAM group, when they found out they were coming to the oval office and it was around Father's Day, they wanted to bring the president a Father's Day card. And so, they went out and bought a Father's Day card and presented it to him in the oval office and some of the young men said to him, "You know what, I've never signed a Father's Day card," because they don't have male role models in their lives.
Their fathers, most of them, are not involved in their lives. And the president said the same thing to them, "you know what, I never signed a Father's Day card either." And I believe that that was the moment. I believe that was the moment where he realized, "you know what, I need to do something about this." It's not real to you until it's real to you. And I think that LZ is exactly right. As the first, right -- you know, people go, it's great to be the first. It's not always so great to be the first. It's not always so great to be ahead of everybody else, because you get the slings and arrows. It may be great in history books. People write about you. You know, oh, Don Lemon, one the first journalists to come out where people write about you, but you also get people that call you names. You also get people who say, you know what, you're an advocate (ph), all these things.
So, the president has that particular pressure and he also has a pressure of Washington, where people want to politicize everything. The good thing about this is what he's calling in this year of action is that he's going to take this beyond his presidency. Removing the politics. You can't argue with money. And so if he takes that money, right, and gets things done around the country, it doesn't matter what Congress does.
That doesn't matter. He will achieve something as the first Black president that no one else has achieved in this country, and that is helping a group that has been disenfranchised for so long and change in their trajectory.
BLITZER: I think all of us are grateful that the president decided to do this on this day. History unfolding here in the nation's capital. We'll continue our coverage right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I didn't listen, they said it again. And if I didn't listen they said it a third time. And they would give me second chances and third chances. They never gave up on me. And so I didn't give up on myself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President referring to his teachers, his community leaders, his mom, his grandmother, his grandfather. Powerful words.
Let's get back to our top story. The president of the United States drawing on his own very personal experiences and launching a program to try to give young minority men a chance at success. It's called my Brother's Keeper and it may be the most personal cause on the president's agenda.
We've got a full discussion going on with some experts on this subject, all of whom were over in the East Room at the White House to watch and listen to the president.
LZ Granderson is here, Cornell Belcher, Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League. Don Lemon is still over at the White House.
While I still have you over there, Don, so the president, he did -- didn't have a father. His father disappeared, was not part of his life, but he did have a mother, he did have grandparents, he did have educators that really worked.
This is a guy who came out of nowhere. He graduated from Harvard Law School and winds up the president of the United States. So if he has that example and he can say to these young people, I came from nowhere, look at me, you can do the same thing, that has an impact.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM: It does have an impact. And you heard Christian, the young -- young man who was there from Chicago saying, you know, it really made a difference in my life when the president sat down with us and told us his personal story. All at once they could relate to him.
He could relate to them. And then it only takes a moment. It only takes one moment and one person in your life to change it and the president happened to be that for those young men.
But I'm sure everyone on that set, as we're looking at, someone just e-mailed me and said, I'm watching CNN right now, I'm in the airport, I just landed and I see, you know, all four of you black men there, and this is an amazing moment, being real on television. Because each of us -- And, you know, Mr. Morial, you know, I'm from Louisiana. Catholic school. I went to an all black Catholic school. And those nuns used to sit with me until I got it.
MARC MORIAL, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE: Love the nuns.
LEMON: Don, I know you can do it. They would sit with -- St. Francis Xavier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And they would sit with me until I got it. They never gave up on me and they would tell my mom and grandmother, whoever would listen, when Don gets home, my sister, older sister, when he gets home, I need you to work with him on his math.
He doesn't -- he doesn't have a problem with reading or spelling or whatever, but that math, boy, he just -- it's not there for him. I need you to work with him. Or we need to get back to some of those core values that we are responsible. We are our brother's keeper. It's an apropos name. When the -- for me, I know when I was growing up, when the street lights came on, that meant you had to have your butt --
MORIAL: Me, too.
LEMON: -- at home. And not only at home studying --
BLITZER: All right.
LEMON: -- and getting ready and getting ready for dinner. And so I think that's what the president was trying to say -- and part of what he was trying to say in that particular moment -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Don, hold on for a moment because I want Marc Morial to weigh in. Great words. We're hearing excellent words from the president of the United States, excellent words from all of you.
How do we translate now these words into action to make sure there are -- more Marc Morials, more Don Lemons, more Cornell Belchers and more LZ Grandersons?
MORIAL: So, Wolf, let's talk about what the initiative entails. So in the room today were the leaders of a whole host of private philanthropies and foundations from around the nation. And the president announced that they had made a $200 million commitment to finance --
BLITZER: All right. So the money is there. But what do you do? How do you educate young kids, give them the inspiration, give them -- without a dad, let's say, give them the wherewithal to get the job --
MORIAL: This is a call to action for teachers, for coaches, for parents. It's a call to action to moms and to dads. It's a call to action to all to, one, believe in these young people, to support these young people, to encourage these young people and to continuously encourage them but it's also a call to action for best practices in the support services area.
And so we do this kind of work at the Urban League. We have all sorts of effective programs. But if in a city like Rochester where we have a black male initiative --
BLITZER: Rochester, New York?
MORIAL: If we touch 50 kids, we could touch 500 if there was expanded level of resources. So I think we've got to understand, behind the words there is an initiative, there's a work group. There's an effort I think to --
BLITZER: All right.
MORIAL: -- put some private (INAUDIBLE).
BLITZER: Cornell, what's the most important -- one thing that all of us can do to make a difference?
CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Well, give back. I mean, just go into your community and mentor someone. There's great mentorship programs in every community. Hundred Black Men. Just go out there and mentor programs.
And one quick thing, Wolf, Barack Obama as a role model is awfully important. It's not -- always transactional but to a lot of African- American women, one thing they fell in love with -- about Barack Obama and sort of moved them towards Barack Obama was that this was an ideal that they want so their children will look up to. This man with this wonderful family who's made it on his own.
BLITZER: Do you think this program is going to work, LZ? Do you think it's going to make a difference? Because I got to tell you, over the years we've heard a lot about the problems out there and maybe -- you know, Tavis Smiley is right, maybe African-American men will be in worse shape after the Obama administration than they were before the Obama administration. Is it going to work?
L.Z. GRANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I believe it's going to work, one, because we know what does work. We know early childhood development works. We also know that smaller classroom size works. If we're able to use that money and help undergird our hurting urban education system, then you will see a change.
You want to talk about things that we can do to help, we can volunteer in our schools. We don't need anyone to come and tell us to go into the school system and just be present. If you're just present -- I remember going through elementary school and not having a single male teacher, let alone a single African-American male teacher.
So just being present is a help and we can undergird our education system because it is hurting -- classrooms are 40, sometimes 50 students tall.
It's a lot to ask nuns to help individually when you've got 50 students. But if the community goes in, help undergird those classrooms and also help with early childhood development, then absolutely, my Brother's Keeper will be a success.
BLITZER: LZ Granderson, thanks very much. Cornell, thanks to you. Marc Morial, always good to have you.
MORIAL: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Don Lemon is going to stick around. We're going to have much more on this later.
Also, there's other news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM, a showdown straight out of the Cold War, troops on alert right now, crowds fighting in the streets and tough warnings by world leaders.
And uncensored messages between those former Chris Christie aides, containing new information about the bridge scandal and sparking new outrage.
BLITZER: It's a scenario straight out of the Cold War, a country torn between the east and west. Russian military forces on high alert just across the border. Clashes on the streets, takeover of government buildings, and tough talk from tough U.S. officials. The tension over Ukraine has much of the world on edge right now.
Let's go over to our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's been following all of these developments.
It is sort of reminiscent of the battle days of the Cold War.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. And you get a sense, a clear sense of how concerned administration officials are by the repeated, stern warnings delivered at the highest level to Russia. On Friday, President Obama called -- Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, we heard it from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Their message almost verbatim. Do not send Russian troops into the Ukraine and the U.S. will be watching. All this as separatist violence broke out on the streets of Ukraine today.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today, armed gunmen from Ukraine's pro-Russia east seized a government building controlled by the country's pro- Europe interim government. It is frightening taste of a worse-case scenario for Ukraine, the country divided along ethnic lines.
Adding to the tension, Russian warplanes placed on high alert and Russian troops mobilizing for military exercises right along Ukraine's eastern border.
With the Obama administration increasingly concerned about Russian's intentions, today U.S. officials repeated a stern warning to stand down.
CHUCK HAGEL, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I urged him not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted.
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Or lead to a miscalculation during a very delicate time.
HAGEL: A time of great tension.
SCIUTTO: Secretary of State John Kerry said that in a phone call today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured him the exercises are not related to Ukraine. And Russia will respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. But he cautioned --
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Statements are statements. Words are words. We have all learned that it's actions and the follow-on choices that make the greatest difference.
SCIUTTO: So if Russia does not send troops inside Ukraine, what could be its intentions?
FIONA HILL, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Should definitely take this as a signal that Russia is testing itself on sending a message that it is prepared to do things if there is a situation that develops that Russia feels that it has to protect its interests.
SCIUTTO: And now in an odd coincidence, a Russian intelligence ship docked in Cuba 90 miles from Florida without explanation from Havana or Moscow.
SCIUTTO: Now Russian officials also assured the U.S. that Russia was not behind the storming of that parliament building in eastern Ukraine. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Kerry he learned about it first watching the television. But there is a trust deficit here.
When Kerry asked today if he trusted Putin, he said, Wolf, there is some value in Putin's assurances. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement and that's why you keep hearing from U.S. officials they are going to keep watching what Russia does this weekend. We know they are watching closely from the air, from the ground, to see if these troop movements amount to anything where they go into the country.
BLITZER: Reminds me sort of the worlds of Ronald Reagan's in the '80s, trust but verify.
SCIUTTO: Right. And Secretary Kerry will have to say, verify, but verify, but verify.
BLITZER: All right. Let's hope they verify.
BLITZER: And hopefully there's a basis for that trust because the situation is tense right now.
SCIUTTO: No question.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.
We're going to have much more on the rising tensions in Ukraine coming up in our next hour but just ahead, uncensored messages between those former Chris Christie aides. They contain some new information about the bridge scandal and they're sparking new outrage.
BLITZER: Uncensored messages between those former Chris Christie aides are bringing new information about the bridgegate scandal and a lot of new outrage.
Chris Frates of CNN Investigations has been learning what's going on.
What's the latest, Chris?
CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this new information comes from documents that we've seen before, but that had been previously blacked out.
FRATES (voice-over): Sure, we've all heard the one about the rabbi who walks into the bar, but two top staffers with ties to Governor Chris Christie joked about making a prominent New Jersey rabbi the victim of some serious transportation delay, according to documents released today.
The exchange involves a discussion between Bridget Kelly, a former top Christie aide, and David Wildstein, who Christie appointed to the Port Authority. Wildstein sends Kelly a picture of a rabbi with House Speaker John Boehner and says, "He has officially pissed me off." Kelly replies, "Clearly. We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?" Wildstein responds, "Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed."
The rabbi, Mendy Carlebach, is chaplain of the Port Authority Police and is prominent in New Jersey, even lighting the menorah at the governor's mansion. It's not clear from the text why Wildstein was annoyed with the rabbi.
We were unable to reach the rabbi for comment but sources tell CNN he is not involved in the lane closures.
The new documents do not directly tie Christie to the bridgegate scandal but he was peppered with questions on a New Jersey radio show Wednesday.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: We're going through an internal investigation. All this stuff will come out over the appropriate period of time. And I'm not going to give in to the hysteria of questions that are given by folks who have information today that I didn't have at the time.
FRATES: The newly released texts and e-mails come from state legislative committee investigating whether last summer's lane closures on the George Washington Bridge were political payback. The new exchange is important because it came August 19th, six days after Kelly's infamous e-mail to Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." A message that launched the investigation into the national media spotlight and cost Kelly her job.
JOHN WISNIEWSKI (D), NEW JERSEY ASSEMBLYMAN: What the committee's trying to understand is, how did Bridget Kelly come to believe that she should send this e-mail? Who gave her the authorization? We don't have those answers. We're still trying to find them.
FRATES: The documents also revealed a conversation Wildstein had with a Port Authority police officer that shows Wildstein was on the bridge the first day of the lane closures.
The e-mails and texts also provide a glimpse into how key players handled the unfolding scandal and even offered a little foreshadowing. At one point Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, texted Wildstein and asked, "Are we being fired?"
FRATES: And a few weeks later both Baroni and Wildstein had resigned -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Interesting sequence of events. Thanks very much, Chris for that.
Let's dig a little bit deeper right now with our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Jeffrey, what do you think? These latest -- I mean, it's weird, when you think about it, six days after they close the bridge they're joking about this rabbi and traffic and flights to Tel Aviv.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: What this makes clear is that the idea of punishment by traffic was something that was in regular circulation in Christie's office. Now, whether -- what they did and why remains mysterious, as of course is the bigger question of what Christie knew, if anything, of what they were doing. But certainly weird is the only description of what was going on.
BLITZER: Right. They're joking about these -- the traffic problems and clearly they're trying to use this, at least these aides, if you believe these texts and these e-mails, they're trying to use this as punishing political adversaries.
TOOBIN: Right, which, you know, I consider myself a fairly cynical, you know, experienced journalist. I certainly have never heard of the idea before all this of using traffic as a kind of punishment, but clearly now we have at least two examples where they were talking about it and once when it happened. And, you know, this is why you have investigations. And we'll see where it leads. And if it was -- if it was done any other times.
BLITZER: There's no evidence emerged of any smoking gun directly implicating the governor himself.
TOOBIN: And -- that's true. And it's far from clear to me that there's anything criminal about this. I mean, as you said, it's weird, but I don't -- I am --
BLITZER: Why is the U.S. attorney in New Jersey investigating if it's far from clear potentially there's anything criminal?
TOOBIN: I think the -- it's certainly weird enough that it's appropriate to look into it. As we're seeing, even today there is more to discover all the time. But the notion of causing traffic problems, it's hard to articulate at least at this point how that could be a federal crime by anybody, but certainly it's all strange enough to merit an investigation, but of course it may end, as many investigations do, with no charges filed.
BLITZER: Right. We'll soon -- I guess maybe not so soon but eventually we'll find out.
BLITZER: All right, Jeffrey, thanks very much.
Coming up, Russian forces, they are on alert. There's tough talk now from Washington. Is a new Cold War suddenly heating up?
Plus the cause close to the president's heart. We have details of his most personal initiative yet, helping young men of color.