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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

"Offensive And Disrespectful"; Sex Assault Bill Shot Down; Russia Begins Air Drills Near Ukraine Border; Competing Visions For Victory?

Aired March 6, 2014 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS, RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Not only were Chairman Issa's actions an abuse of authority, they were in fact counterproductive. In my opinion, the House Republicans have abandoned responsible oversight by repeatedly declining to take basic investigative steps, promoting unnecessary political conflict and making false claims about the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns is here with the latest. Joe, the involvement of the Congressional Black Caucus, does that mean that they're suggesting something was racial about this incident?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: A lot more caucus, a lot more politics, a lot less race I think is probably the way that you can best put it. The CBC is involved in part because Elijah Cummings is a former chair of the CBC. But speaking with the current chair, she doesn't see race as having anything to do with it.

And people close to Cummings say he sees race even as a distraction. In fact, we're being told a similar situation involving Issa shutting down the mic occurred in December and involved a white congressman, John Tierney of Massachusetts. So the suggestion is the only reason race is even coming is because Issa at least once had to apologize to Cummings because of a remark that could have been construed as insensitive.

TAPPER: Speaker Boehner told reporters that Issa was within his rights to cut off the microphone as he did. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you approve of the way he acted and are you prepared to say you are not going to replace him as chair?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Darrell Issa is the chairman. He's done an effective job as chairman and I support him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What is Issa's explanation for what he did?

JOHNS: Well, it's pretty simple. He says this hearing was a continuation of the hearing that started in May and it involved that former IRS official who had actually said she wasn't going to testify. Fast forward to yesterday, and it was just a continuation of the hearing. So no need to allow Cummings to have his extra 5 minutes to speak because he'd already done an opening statement. They say it was all about procedure, of course the fact of the matter is for one reason or another, Mr. Issa did not want Mr. Cummings to speak.

TAPPER: And I know Issa has voiced frustration before with the fact that he wants Lois Lerner to testify and explain things that only she can explain it and she will not do that.

JOHNS: Sure. And there is a question of whether she is going to get cited with contempt of Congress where that could possibly go. There is also the question of whether she ought to be given immunity for prosecution.

TAPPER: All right, Joe Johns, thank you so much.

Also in politics today, moments ago, the Senate shutdown a bill that would have changed the way the military prosecutes sexual assaults. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York has been fighting passionately for the bill that would have taken away commanders authority to decide whether rape and sexual assault cases should be prosecuted outside the chain of command.

The bill lost by a vote of 55-45, and did not break along party lines at all. Pentagon's leadership opposed the bill arguing commanders should not be stripped of their responsibilities. Gillibrand says the changes are needed to take on an epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed forces.

When we come back, a frustrated President Obama laying the ground work for sanctions against Russia if the crisis in Ukraine is not worked out. But how long does Vladimir Putin have before time runs out? I'll ask a top national security adviser to the president coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back. Continuing our World Lead, the tense situation unfolding in Ukraine as we reported moments ago. Russia has begun what it's calling the largest ever exercise in its western military district. Scant 280 miles from its border with Ukraine according to Russian state news.

Word of this comes shortly after the local parliament in Ukraine's disputed territory Crimea voted to separate and join the Russian federation. And even more shortly after President Obama warned Russia that it is violating international law with its, quote, "intervention" in the Crimean Peninsula.

Deputy national security adviser for the White House, Ben Rhodes, joins me now. Ben, the day started with the White House announcing sanctions and visa restrictions, but you weren't going to name anyone because you wanted to give the Russians space to come to a diplomatic resolution.

And here they are launching this immense military exercise. It does not seem as though the Russians are taking President Obama very seriously.

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, no, Jake, first of all, let me correct you. It wasn't that we wanted to give them space. The executive order gives us the ability to target individual Russians entities responsible for the intervention. We're then going to move out.

And we would sanction them for what they have already done in Crimea to date and we're preparing those designations. We also made clear though that we can escalate our sanctions if the Russians escalate their activities. That's exactly what we're going to do. We've already done the travel bans and we're preparing for designations based on the executive order the president issued today.

TAPPER: OK, well, you do that with the travel ban and the visa restrictions and the sanctions and now Russia puts up this immense military exercise. What is your reaction to that news?

RHODES: Well, look, whether or not Russia has a military exercise within its borders is the not the issue. The issue is whether they respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. That's what they have already violated in Crimea. We've been very clear that it would be a destabilizing escalatory move for them to move beyond Crimea in the Eastern Ukraine.

That would invite even stronger response from the United States and our European allies. As long as they're in Crimea, they are going to face consequences in terms of political and economic isolation from us that will have an impact on their economy and their standing in the international community.

TAPPER: We do about -- the U.S. is about $40 billion in trade every year with Russia, but the European Union does $460 billion and they are very reluctant to engage in the kind of economic punishment that you're talking about. We've seen from the Brits. We've seen from the Germans and others, they are not interested in doing what the United States wants to do.

RHODES: Well, we think that they are, Jake. We think that they understand that destabilizing activities on the borders of Europe is not in the interests of their economy either. They indicated today that if this continues, if Russia doesn't come to the table in a constructive way, they are going to move to similar types of sanctions.

And that they too have an escalating series of steps that they could take and we do believe that can have an impact on the Russian economy. Already Jake, you've seen the stock market plummet for the Russians. You've seen the Ruble plummet.

So this has already having a cost in their economy and as these sanctions sink in, not only will it target individual Russians who are corrupt and who are supporting the activities in Crimea, ultimately it is going to have an impact on the Russian economy.

TAPPER: To play devil's advocate, Ben, Crimea's has been a contentious territory for more than 200 years. Crimea's first president ran on a platform of secession just two years after it joined Ukraine in 1992. Is the U.S. ignoring a struggle for democracy within Crimea by saying this is unconstitutional. They seem to want to be part of the Russian federation.

RHODES: Well, I'd say two things, Jake. First of all, the referendum that was put forward today violates the Ukrainian constitution. It is not legitimate. You cannot make decisions about a region without the government in Kiev being a part of those discussions.

TAPPER: But when is that principle -- I mean, Quebec has voted to secede from Canada. They voted against it ultimately. Scotland is going to vote on whether or not they want to be a separate country from the United Kingdom. This isn't some principle that we fight for. Territories often especially ones that are separate and apart from the country in which they reside, they on often make votes like this.

RHODES: Well, these are good examples, Jake. The Scottish referendum is only going forward with the participation and support of the government in London. So it's not as if that was done with a foreign power coming in and guaranteeing the ability of Scotland having the referendum.

TAPPER: You know, Crimea is only part of Ukraine because Krushchev gave it to them when it was all part of the USSR. A lot of people in Crimea want to be part of the Russian federation. I don't understand why this would be something that the United States would say it is unfair, unconstitutional, violates the constitution and Ukraine has adapted in 1996. It's not an age old document.

RHODES: Well, it's something the authorities in Kiev can talk to the people in Crimea about. The Ukrainian prime minister said the other day he's open to discussing autonomy arrangements between Crimea and the government in Kiev. So that is a possibility.

But the other point here is, look, we understand Russia has a long-standing relationship there. We understand Russia has a military base in Crimea. Their interests are legitimate in Crimea, but their interest do not include being able to leave that military base and effectively occupying the Crimean peninsula.

What we've said to them is we can ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are respected if we get monitors in. We can ensure frankly that there is a legitimate government in Ukraine if there are elections in May and frankly, Russia has a basing agreement that could allow those forces to stay in Crimea.

The Ukrainian government has said they can stay there as long as they're back on their base and they are not out engage in the type of packets that we've seen the last several days.

TAPPER: Well, it appears like Crimea has lost. I think a lot of individuals think that Crimea is basically gone at this point. But to one other thing I want to ask you about. Some on the Hill, Republicans are also arguing that Putin's actions in Ukraine are tied to an appearance of weakness from the White House. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR BOB CORKER (R), RANKING MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS: The permissive environment that we have created through this reset thinking that someone like Putin reacts to warmth and charm and reach out when what he really reacts to is weakness and I think he has seen that in our foreign policy efforts over the course of this last year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee. He listed that administration's actions in dealing with Syria, the escalating violence we see there now is key examples of this. I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond.

RHODES: Two things, Jake. First of all, why Putin did what he did in Crimea had everything to do with Ukraine. And what happened in Ukraine is a pro-Russian government packed up and left town and was replaced by a pro-western/pro-American government. That's the scenario that led Putin to take the action that he did. Not exactly a position of great strength in the world.

He saw Ukraine moving away from Russia's orbit and he moved in to Crimea. The second thing I'd say with respect to Syria is I don't understand exactly what they're saying. Should we have gone to war in Syria just to send a message to Putin? That's not smart foreign policy.

That's not the way in which you look at how these pieces fit together. We're going to be very clear about what our interests are and what we stand for. And Ukraine, we stand for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a country that wants to associate more with the west.

TAPPER: All right, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication. Thanks for coming and answering our questions. We appreciate it.

RHODES: Thanks, Jake. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Coming up next, President Obama warning Democrats prepare to get walloped in this year's midterm elections if they do not stay focused as Republicans rally their base today. Who has the advantage?

Plus the third grader who is taking on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You should be investing in these schools, not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In politics, Republicans came out swinging today at CPAC and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, well, he came out armed. The Senate minority leader came on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington with a rifle. The gun was a lifetime achievement award from the NRA.

That he handed off to his retiring colleague, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn who is leaving his term early for health reasons. The more common weapon in the room, of course, were words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL (R), LOUISIANA: We have long thought and said this president is a smart man. It may be time to revisit that assumption.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Man. Here to talk about it all, Carol Lee, the White House correspondent for the "Wall Street Journal" and Ron Fournier. Carol, last at a fundraiser in Boston, President Obama warned Democrats they could get walloped in the midterm. Tell us more about that.

CAROL LEE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": I was traveling with the president and he hasn't really talked about this in this way this time around yet. And so he was very concerned that they could get walloped, that if people sat on the sidelines. It seems like he was remembering 2010, which was a shellacking as he said.

TAPPER: As opposed to the thumping that Bush talked about.

LEE: And now a wallop.

TAPPER: Every midterm has its own gerund. But let's talk about CPAC and seeing if Republicans can actually get it together. There were two competing versions what have the Republican Party brand needs to be. Two different visions. Here is Texas Senator Ted Cruz talking about the need to stand firm and not compromise. That's the way to win elections he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: You want to lose, stand for nothing. Three of the four, we follow that had strategy. In '06, '08, '12, we put our head down. We stood for nothing and we got walloped.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Another walloping. Here is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie saying principles, sure, they're nice, but winning elections also nice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: We don't get to governor if we don't win. And it's not only bad when we don't get to governor because we don't get to hold or change our society. What is worse is they do and they're doing to us right now. So please let us come out here, resolve not only to stand for our principles, but let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Who is right, Ron?

RON FOURNIER, SENIOR POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "NATIONAL JOURNAL": They both are and they're both a little bit wrong. I was actually struck by Chris Christie when he said the -- the explanation he gave for how we win as a Republican is not just to be -- not just talk about what we're against, but talk about what we're for. What we got instead from him and just about every Republican out there was a parade of straw men.

They were against Obama, of course. They were against the media, of course. They were against -- I have a list here, hope and change, against Washington, against socialist notions, whatever that is, against gun control, against Wall Street reform, against unions, even against, of course, Harry Reid. So there was no really positive unifying vision except that we really don't like Barack Obama and anybody associated with him.

TAPPER: I did hear one saying that I've been hearing -- I heard it with Rick Perry (inaudible) and then also from a bunch of them on stage. They all talk about how America's best days are in front of us. They definitely got the memo that they need to be more optimistic. But do they need to work on as Ron says talking more about what specifically that means?

LEE: Well, yes, because the knock on Republicans for the last couple of cycles has been that they have run against Barack Obama. And Barack Obama will be on the ticket to a certain extent this fall, but he is not as much in 2016. You've heard this for years. People want to hear a little bit more. Like OK, so you're not for that, so what are you for?

And so that and being more optimistic. The idea that Democrats try to stick on Republicans saying no to everything actually took hold a little bit. So they're fighting against that at the same time.

TAPPER: Speaking about fighting, I want to touch on something that happened yesterday after the show. Yesterday, the Senate blocked the confirmation of Debo Adegbile, the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was nominated to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The criticism is that he had represented Abu-Jamal who was convicted 30 years ago of murdering a Philadelphia police officer and Adegbile helped get his death sentence overturned. Seven Democrats voted with Republicans. Ron, what happened here?

FOURNIER: This is an amazing little story. I'm the son of a Detroit police officer. I have no sympathy for cop killers. But I also have no sympathy for people who knowingly ignore the constitutional right and the guarantee of an attorney. There is a big different between a cop killer and a man or a woman who represents a cop killer.

These lawmakers know this. Also the White House even though they're on the right side of this issue in my opinion, handled the politics horribly. How is it that they did not have better preparation and people in their open party know this was coming and be able to better explain?

LEE: And it's something you see consistently. You saw that when the president wanted to nominate Larry Summers to lead the treasury. They completely misjudged Democrats being against that and the same when he tried to authorize force in Syria.

FOURNIER: They don't get Congress.

TAPPER: Interesting. Ron Fournier and Carol Lee, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.

Coming up next, how do you deal with fixing schools when kids are dying in the streets? That's issue number one, of course, for Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a special sneak peek at the CNN original series "Chicagoland" coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In our national lead, while he does managed to find time to dare Jimmy Fallon to jump into Lake Michigan in the middle of winter and defend Chicago's, we'll call it an interpretation of pizza.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's days are largely consumed with running the nation's third largest city. He shares a lot in common with the mayors of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, all four Democrats are gathering in Chicago this evening to discuss challenges facing America's biggest urban centers and you'll see those challenges chronicled in "Chicagoland."

A new CNN original series from Executive Producer Robert Redford that premiers tonight including the bitter fight over Emanuel's school budget cuts and school closings, many in minority communities.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mayor is taking a risk with his bold school plan. While it might make sense because of the budget crisis and declining enrollment, many parents fear it puts their kids at risk because they will have to walk across dangerous gang lines to attend new schools.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Don't position you can just come into our schools and move all our kids over gang lines and just say we can build a building right here, let's take this school out, but there's kids in there. They need safety.

UDM: He's speaking out for the 30,000 kids who would be affected by school closings.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You should be investing in these schools. Not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them. We're not toys. We are not going down without a fight.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Gangs, guns and the battle for the future of Chicago's schools. See all the real life drama when "Chicagoland" premiers tonight on CNN 10 p.m. Eastern, 9 p.m. Central. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.